ETSU women focused on task at hand

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 16, 2020 at 12:00 PM

It’s an old coaching cliché, but the East Tennessee State women’s basketball team is focused on one day at a time.

Coming off a win at Western Carolina, the Bucs (6-11, 1-1) have Southern Conference games against Furman on Thursday at 7 p.m. and Wofford on Saturday at 2 p.m. Ask ETSU coach Brittney Ezell about upcoming opponents and the focus is more on her own team.

“Our focus every day has to be getting through the next practice,” Ezell said. “We don’t know who we’re going to have, our availability with illness and injuries. We will be without one on Thursday. The flu has run through the team and we’re trying to decide who will be available after an injury to (Amaya) Adams at the Western game. Our roster changes and what we can do changes.”

The first half of the season has been all about making adjustments. Anajae Stephney and Taisha Murphy were lost for the year before the season even started.

Despite that, ETSU pushed Tennessee to the limit in a 72-68 loss at Freedom Hall as Erica Haynes-Overton posted a 41-point effort. The next game at Liberty, Haynes-Overton eclipsed the 1,000-point milestone by scoring 23 points in a 63-62 victory.

Three games later, she was out with an injury, not to return for the season. She decided to transfer from the program and it was announced last week she was headed to Kansas.

Her absence and nagging injuries to Jada Craig have forced several players to take on bigger roles. First and foremost is junior guard Micah Scheetz, who is averaging a team-best 15.5 points per game. Sophomore guard Kaia Upton has picked it up on both ends of the court with 6.9 points and 2.1 steals per game.

“Once Erica left, a lot of people stepped forward,” Ezell said. “It was easy to get caught up on watching her at times. Jada, Micah and Kaia have battled through injuries. Micah has played with a displaced rib the last three games and Jada has suffered a quad tendon. Kaia sprained her ankle and kept playing. Those three kids have been our nucleus and they’re just tough.”

Shynia Jackson, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, averaging 7.2 points per game, and Tijuana Kimbro, a 6-foot-4 junior from Memphis, have been the leaders in the posts after the Bucs were hit hard by graduation and the injuries. Kimbro is averaging 6.3 points and seven rebounds per game, and also leads the team with 34 blocked shots over 16 games.

“They’ve tried to fill the void left by the five senior post players from last year,” Ezell said. “A lot of people have stepped forward. I have to keep in mind, remind them and our staff that they’re sophomores, even Kimbro being a JUCO transfer, she’s only played one year. Most of the people getting minutes for us are sophomores.”

That includes the team’s most versatile player, E’Lease Stafford, a 6-foot sophomore listed as both a guard and forward. She ranks second on the team in scoring at 8.9 points per game.

“E’Lease is an all-conference player in the making,” Ezell said. “She can score the ball at all three levels. She’s long, and can rebound. She played spot minutes here and there last year, but she’s starting to figure it out where the game has slowed down and it’s not overwhelming.”

While Ezell would like to see the Bucs improve on getting beat by a 42-34 rebounding margin and cut down on 16.2 turnovers per game, she likes the effort by the team.

“I’ve never had to question the effort of our kids. The turnovers, a lot of that, is pressing and trying to do too much or trying to do something too fast,” Ezell said. “I can take some of them because they’re turnovers by effort and it’s not just being careless, slinging it all over the gym.

“The rebounding, a lot of that, we don’t have same kind of physical presence as last season. These are different kids, more finesse than big-bodied. They’re not built like that so it’s getting them to understand when to make contact and positioning is paramount. In games where we’re really good, the rebounding has been even. When it’s down by double figures, that’s tough to overcome. But, those are the two primary areas of concern.”