The Panthers Are Ready to Pounce
By Chris Crawford
Wintrop University broke the hearts of High Point University when they ended the teams promising basketball season. Twice. Both teams.
While it may not have been the ending both the men's and women's teams were looking for, both teams are poised to do big things for years to come.
The Fall From Grace
The initial shot to the heart came in the men's conference tournament opening round, when Andre Smith of Winthrop hit a miracle three pointer in the final seconds. The women's team managed to get all the way to the championship before Withrop delivered the second devastating blow when they trounced and bounced the Panthers out in a 33 point win.
"That one really left a bad taste. To work so hard and get so far only to basically not show up when it really mattered," says women's head coach DeUnna Hendrix.
These were tough losses for both teams as each entered its respected tournament as the one seed having finished first in the conference at the end of the regular season. Having that best record in conference play earned each team a trip to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), which meant that no matter what happened in the conference tournament, the Panthers were heading to the post season.
"We may have come in a little too calm cause we knew we were going to the NIT. I think it gives us motivation for next year though. I know I will remember that game come next season," explains Latrice Phelps, starting forward for the Lady Panthers.
Granted a trip to the NIT is nice, a trip to the NCAA March Madness tournament would have been a little better. Especially because the teams were the favorites to win the conference tournament. None the less though, this is a step in the right direction for a basketball program on the rise.
"Last year was the CIT, this year we were in the NIT. There is only one more to go (March Madness) and I think we have the pieces to do it," men's Coach Scott Cherry explains.
The Hoover-Hendrix Connection
The women's team success could be seen developing back in the 2010-2011 when the school brought in Jennifer Hoover as the new head coach. In her first year as head coach she guided the Panthers to their second 20 win season in school history and also their second NIT.
That first year was enough for Wake Forest to steal Hoover away and leave High Point with a decision of either hiring from within, or looking elsewhere for a new coach. After some reassurance from Hoover, the school decided to promote from within tagging her assistant DeUnna Hendrix as the next head coach.
In her inaugural season they did not perform as well as the prior year with Hoover, but that is expected with a rookie head coach. It wasn't even a bad season by any means either. The team finished with a 17-13 record overall and an 11-7 record in the conference.
Like most teams on the rise the Lady Panthers improved this year with a very impressive 22-11 overall record and a 16-4 record in the conference. These second year efforts did not go unnoticed as Hendrix was awarded with the Coach of the Year award in the Big South.
"That was unexpected. All it says though is that I am surrounded by an incredible supporting staff. I have a great group of girls that are coachable." Hendrix states, "I think it says more about where our program is going and its character."
It is incredibly impressive for a coach to go out and win coach of the year in just their second year, but add the fact that Hendrix also had the Big South Freshman of the year Kaylah Keys on her roster and you have yourself a very dynamic duo for three more years. Coach Hendrix thinks Keys is the key.
"You are going to see a lot from that kid. You could see her name leading the nation in scoring in three years time. It's gonna depend on what she wants to do and how much work she wants to put in, but she could definitely get there."
The Cherry on Top
The men's program has been in the works for a little longer. In 2009 High Point decided to part ways with Bary Lundy, who in the 2006-2007 season coached the team to a 22-10 record, but fell off quickly as the team only managed to win nine games overall and four in the conference in his final year.
Scott Cherry, a man who played under the great Dean Smith, was brought in as the next head coach and after a rough first three years, the culture of High Point Men's basketball started to change. Before the 2012-2013 season Scott Cherry made a splash landing four-star recruit Allan Chaney.
Chaney, a graduate student, had heart issues that made him unable to play at University of Florida, but after surgery and a few years off Chaney came back to the game giving High Point University their first ever top 100 recruit.
If that didn't generate enough buzz before the 2012 season the athleticism of red shirt freshman John Brown would. Standing at lanky 6-feet 6-inches, Brown could jump out of the building and would throw down dunks that would not only bring the Millis Center to their feet, but would also get a feature on the Sportscenter top ten the next day.
The team started to really get people talking around campus when it finished the year with a 17-14 overall record and a 12-4 conference record, which earned the Panthers a trip to the College Insiders Tournament. The new found success, paired with the excitement of Brown and Chaney, was enough to put High Point on the map.
Prior to this coming season there was more excitement than ever surrounding the team once the schedules came out. As Cherry points out it featured games against some of the most daunting opponents the young program has ever faced.
"Stepahn F. Austin, Wofford and Syracuse all played in the tournament. Georgetown and Arkansas played in the NIT. It was a schedule full of teams that were really good and really talented."
As a program on the rise, getting to face these first class opponents is the epitome of a win-win-win situation.
First, it gives the school exposure and, in most cases, the school will get some sort of compensation from the big school for making the trip.
Second, the team gets valuable experience against top-tier opponents, which will only help when they play the smaller schools in conference play.
Lastly, when a school like HPU travels and plays the likes of Syracuse, nobody expects the Panthers to come out on top. So if by some chance the team manages to pull off the upset, it is monumental for the program.
"It is great for our exposure," Cherry explains, "We got the Georgetown game on Fox Sports 1, we got on ESPN U a couple times, it's is great for our program and it is great for our kids."
After a season like this the Panthers are poised to make some noise and Phelps is trying to petition the crowd, "People should be talking about us. We have the potential to be great."
With both teams expecting the majority of their starting line-ups back she isn't wrong either. Look for the Panthers to be dancing in 2014.
Coverage on the rise:
- From 2009-2013 the women's team had zero games nationally televised
- In the 2013-2014 season the team had four
- From 2009-2013 the men's team had three games nationally televised
- In the 2013-2014 season the team had nine
- For the program as a whole, three total from 2009-2013 and 13 in the 2013-2014 season alone
Those leaving and staying:
- The women's team will have two people not returning next year
- Only one of them is a starter
- They combine to average 16.2 points per game
- The leading scorer, Kaylah Keys, averages 17.4 points per game and she is returning
- Latrice Phelps averages just under 10 points per game and is also returning
- The team as a whole will retain 78% of its scoring average from the previous year
- Taylor Tremblay will return after sitting out the majority of the 2013-2014 season
- She was averaging 13.4 points per game before getting injured
- Only Kaylah Keys averaged more points per game
- The men's team will have three players not returning
- One is Allan Chaney, who missed the second half of the year with heart issues
- Derrell Edwards and Dejuan McGaughy are the other two
- Edwards started and averaged 3.4 points per game
- McGaughy came off the bench averaging 4.8 points per game
- The two of them make up only 11% of the Panthers scoring
- The leading scorer, John Brown, averages 19.5 points per game and he is returning
- The top 4 scorers from the past year will all be returning next season