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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, December 7, 2011

By Bethany Bradsher

Ladies and their diehard fans primed for VCU

By Brian Bailey
All rights reserved.

Most of the players on the Lady Pirates basketball team weren’t around for the first seven games of their current home winning streak, which is all the more reason for them to stretch it out.

This squad, which features a large crop of newcomers including sophomore transfer Kristine Mial and former Clemson player Bryelle Smith, is 5-2, a record that is underscored by coach Heather Macy and her players’ assertions that they seem to improve every day.

Armed with a 12-game home winning streak and returning starters Shala Hodges and Chareya Smith, who are each averaging double-doubles for the season, East Carolina will face one of its more daunting non-conference opponents — Virginia Commonwealth — tonight at Minges.

“What’s so great about this team is how hard they work and how committed they are to being good,” Macy said. “They just come every single day to practice and keep getting better and better and better.”

The spirited Minges atmosphere has come as a surprise to newcomers like Kristine Mial, a standout performer for the Pirates who was a second-team junior college All-American at Frederick Community College. Mial, a 5-9 forward, notched 16 points and 11 points against Monmouth for her first double-double as a Pirate. Wins like that one have given Mial a great deal of confidence in her new home fans.

“It’s not just having people in the stands; it’s recognizing the people in the stands,” Mial said. “I guess I didn’t know what to expect when I got here.”

“We have a really great atmosphere from our band, to cheerleaders and the dance team to the fans, everybody makes it an event,” Macy said.

Freshman Tatiana Chapple, one of the top scoring freshmen on the ECU roster, has noticed that the team’s fans are knowledgeable and passionate about the Lady Pirates, not just ECU or basketball in general. That dynamic makes them play harder because of the excitement in the stands and also because they feel that they owe it to the crowd to provide something to celebrate.

“It’s just really exciting to play in front of fans who are there to support you,” Chapple said. “We’re just looking forward to really showing people what we can do.”

The VCU matchup will provide a legitimate test, because not only did the Rams make the NIT field last year, they are returning stellar seniors Courtney Hurt and Andrea Barbour. Hurt, who has scored three consecutive double-doubles and is on the Naismith Watch List for the top 50 women’s players in the nation.

“They’re a postseason team from a year ago and have two of the most dominant players that we’ll see this year in scoring and rebounding,” Macy said. “We’ll be facing two really large challenges. They’re much bigger than we are, and we’re really going to need to control the tempo.”

Win or lose, the Pirates will have to take a break from the comfort of home court  with trips to two holiday tournaments — the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach and the Terrapin Classic in Maryland. After those trips, it’s only a matter of weeks before the Conference USA slate begins, and the commencement of those crucial games would be an ideal time for this team to answer all of its question and move forward on the momentum of every athlete’s greatest strengths.

Chapple might be new to Division I play, but she has seen enough of her Pirates and their opponents to believe that she is playing for a team that has all of the right building blocks to assemble something great.

“Me and my teammates have great chemistry, and it’s been really easy to transfer that onto the floor,” Chapple said. “We have so many threats on defense and offense, and we’re just blessed to have such a deep bench.”

E-mail Brian Bailey.

PAGE UPDATED 01/03/12 02:39 AM.

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