The goals for the Sacramento State women’s basketball team are simple: Improve on its 19-win effort from the previous season, be a factor in the Big Sky Conference title chase and become a respected mid-major program.
The fact that the Hornets may be doing it in a most entertaining way under a new coach who has been on the job for a little more than two months is a nice bonus.
Sac State is starting to draw a strong contingent of curious fans and student rooters to the cozy confines of The Nest, its 1,000-seat gym, to watch the Hornets play first-year coach Bunky Harkleroad’s 40 minutes of fast and furious.
They are being rewarded.
The Hornets’ 6-1 start is the program’s best in the Division I era that dates to 1991-92 and the best start since Sac State opened 8-1 in 1976-77.
Among the Hornets’ early-season highlights:
• They lead the NCAA Division I in 3-point shots made per game (13.9) and steals per game (16.1), are second in turnover margin (10.7) and are fourth in points per game (92.3).
• They set school and Big Sky records for 3-pointers made (18) and attempted (49) in a 93-89 win Nov. 10 against San Diego State. The Hornets have since matched that record twice.
• They defeated Oregon, coached by Paul Westhead, 97-85 in Eugene on Nov. 17. The teams combined to shatter the NCAA single-game record for 3-point attempts (75) with 86.
• They edged visiting Saint Mary’s 94-92 on Dec. 5, ending a 16-game losing streak to the Gaels since moving to D-I.
• They are 4-0 in games decided by four or fewer points and have an average margin of victory of 3.1 points.
• They have used a different starting lineup every game, starting 10 different players and overcoming injuries to key players.
“I can’t imagine how much fun it must be to watch us play,” said Hornets senior Alle Moreno, who needs just four points on Saturday against visiting UC Irvine to became the 11th player in school history to score 1,000 or more career points. “It’s really fun to play this way. I couldn’t imagine playing any other way.”
Harkleroad won 258 games toiling at National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and Division II schools in Kentucky and West Virginia.
He is an adherent of what’s been called “The System,” modeled on an up-tempo scheme developed by Grinnell men’s basketball coach Dave Arseneault, that Westhead used to set NCAA men’s D-I scoring records at Loyola Marymount from 1988 to 1990 and that former Redlands men’s coach Gary Smith has introduced to high school boys programs at Davis and Valley Christian in Roseville. It relies on quick shots – primarily 3-pointers and layups off steals – aggressive offensive rebounding, full-court defensive pressure and half-court traps and hockey-line substitutions every 60 seconds or so.
When Jamie Craighead resigned in September to take a late-opening job at San Jose State, Sac State athletic administrators Terry Wanless and Bill Macriss went looking for an offensive-minded coach in a similar vein as Craighead.
They got what they wanted.
Last year the Hornets averaged 72.4 points per game. They are nearly 20 points better this season.
Harkleroad figures he’s coming to D-I at the right time as more athletic directors look for innovative approaches to creating fan interest just as the NCAA has vowed to crack down on the game’s physicality.
“There’s a different thing going on within the game of women’s basketball, and more excitement is always welcome,” Harkleroad said. “I think there’s more emphasis on passing, dribbling and shooting rather than just pounding somebody and dominating them physically.”
The Hornets’ season high of 103 points came last Saturday at The Nest against San Jose State in the former coach’s first return to Sac State since her departure.
Still, it was no blowout.
San Jose State scored 99 points.
“This was a great game,” Craighead said while trying to deflect the emotional return. “I love up-tempo games. It’s what we wanted. They just came up with a few more plays in the second half.”
Players such as the lightning-quick 5-foot-5 Moreno and 5-4 Fantasia Hilliard are making more plays while playing a little less than in previous seasons.
“Under Jamie I might play 34 minutes or more,” said Hilliard, a junior point guard from Sacramento High averaging seven assists a game. “Under Bunky you play fewer minutes and the time is more divided among the players, but the intensity is up. The tempo is a lot faster, but nothing we can’t handle.”
It’s been mostly other teams breathing hard at the end, even though the Hornets lost senior guard Se’Nyce Parrish to a season-ending knee injury in the second game and saw senior forward Sadie Clements miss the past two games with an ankle injury.
Sac State has won three games at home by four or fewer points, something Moreno credits to experienced players such as juniors Hilliard, Takara Burse, Shanti Smith and Andrea Chenier; freshmen Margaret Huntington, Hallie Gennett, Gigi Hascheff and Ashlyn Crenshaw; and the raucous crowd support led by a contingent of fellow Sac State athletes, including members of the football team.
“You’ve seen our fans – that helps a lot,” said Moreno, who leads the team in scoring at 17.1 points per game. “We have some tough freshmen, and we have veterans who know how to push through when we get to the 38th and 39th minutes.”
Harkleroad has been pleased with how the players, all inherited from Craighead, have responded to his coaching.
“Coach Craighead did a great job here, and we’re trying to build on that,” Harkleroad said. “Our success so far has been about our players stepping up and making plays.”