The Sacramento State women’s basketball team, which created a huge buzz last season with its record-breaking up-tempo offense, has 16 players on its roster this season.
But will it be enough?
“It better be,” said second-year coach Bunky Harkleroad, the architect of “The System.”
Ideally, three rotations of five players shuttle into the game every 45 to 60 seconds to create a breakneck tempo while shooting threes, pressing, trapping and leaving opponents gasping – just as the Hornets did in a 135-95 exhibition win over Chico State on Saturday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Harkleroad was a late hire last year and had only 11 players ready to play his unique form of basketball, and it was more than enough for a while.
The Hornets got off to a school-record 11-1 start, including victories over Oregon, Saint Mary’s and Cal State Northridge, and received national attention from ESPN.
But as they were breaking NCAA season records for three-pointers made and attempts and setting school records for points, scoring average and fewest turnovers, the Hornets broke down physically.
Senior Se’Nyce Parrish and junior Andrea Chenier suffered season-ending knee injuries, and senior captain Alle Moreno and junior forward Shanti Smith were hampered by injuries throughout Big Sky Conference play.
With fewer healthy players, the Hornets lost seven of their last 10 and used a more conventional style late in the season. Sac State finished 18-12 overall, 10-10 in conference and 13-2 at home.
“Last year was tough because we showed so much promise, and then we had those injuries,” Harkleroad said. “We had to make adjustments we normally wouldn’t want to make just to survive.”
With only six returning players plus redshirt Brianna Burgos (Sheldon High School), Harkleroad brought in nine new players – five community college transfers and four freshmen.
The Hornets are led by three returning starters: senior point guard Fantasia Hilliard (Sacramento High), senior guard Takara Burse and sophomore forward Hallie Gennett.
Hilliard, a 5-foot-3 dynamic playmaker and an All-Big Sky Conference honorable mention selection last season, holds the school career and season records for assists and is on target to break the steals record, too. She was second in scoring (11.8 average) last year behind Moreno (13.5), Sac State’s career three-point leader.
Gennett broke school records for three-pointers made and attempted in a season and averaged 11.2 points. Burse led the team and was fourth in the Big Sky Conference with 71 steals and averaged 9.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Also back are Chenier and sophomores Margaret Huntington and Ashlyn Crenshaw. Chenier averaged 10.0 points before being injured. Huntington, 6-0, led the Hornets in rebounding (7.5), and Crenshaw was a defensive pest.
Point guard Justyce Dawson, who helped Long Beach Poly win back-to-back CIF state titles, headlines a freshman class that includes Deer Valley of Antioch’s Maranne Johnson and Chino’s Taylor Brown, guards who were league MVPs last season.
Among the community college transfers are 5-8 forward Gretchen Harrigan (25.2 points, 8.3 rebounds), the Big 8 Conference MVP for Santa Rosa Junior College last season, and 5-7 Sierra College point guard Ericka Magana (Inderkum), the Big 8 Defensive Player of the Year.
Sophomore Kyhonta Doughty from Trinity Valley College in Texas and junior Sydonia Daniels from State Fair Community College in Missouri, both 6-1 forwards, should give the Hornets more rebounding.
“We’re excited because we’ve gotten bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic and skilled,” Harkleroad said.
Sac State, a mid-major, is playing a big-time schedule, highlighted by consecutive games on the road in December against No. 15 Cal, No. 20 Oregon State, No. 23 UCLA and USC.
More than 40 percent of the Hornets’ schedule is against teams that played in the NCAA Tournament or Women’s NIT last season. And the Hornets play 10 of their first 13 games on the road.
“We have one way to get to (the NCAA) Tournament, and that’s win our league,” Harkleroad said. “So we have to challenge ourselves.”
BIG SKY COACHES POLL
(First-place votes in parentheses)
1. North Dakota (7)
2. Montana (2)
3. Idaho (2)
4. Northern Colorado (1)
5. Eastern Washington
6. Montana State
7. Southern Utah
8. Idaho State
9. Sacramento State
10. Northern Arizona
11. Portland State
12. Weber State
Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct a photo caption identifying Fantasia Hilliard and Justyce Dawson.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
HORNETS AT A GLANCE
▪ Coach: Bunky Harkleroad, second season, 18-12; overall 276-135
▪ 2013-14: 18-12, 10-10 and tied for sixth in Big Sky Conference
▪ Key losses: Three-point career scorer Alle Moreno, starting guard Gigi Hascheff (Long Beach State transfer), reserve forward Shanti Smith.
▪ Key returnees: Senior point guard and career assists leader Fantasia Hilliard, senior guard Takara Burse, senior guard Andrea Chenier, sophomore forward Hallie Gennett.
▪ Strengths: Hilliard, one of the top point guards in the conference; a unique, up-tempo style of play that presents challenges for defenses; hops and speed.
▪ Challenges: Brutal nonconference schedule, playing on the road; integrating nine new players into “The System;” staying healthy.
▪ Big Sky coaches poll (first-place votes in parentheses): 1. North Dakota (7), 2. Montana (2), 3. Idaho (2), 4. Northern Colorado (1), 5. Eastern Washington, 6. Montana State, 7. Southern Utah, 8. Idaho State, 9. Sacramento State, 10. Northern Arizona, 11. Portland State, 12. Weber State.
at San Diego State
at Cal State Northridge
New Mexico State
at Saint Mary’s
at Oregon State
at San Jose State
at Northern Arizona*
at Southern Utah*
at Eastern Washington*
at Montana State*
at Portland State*
at Northern Colorado*
at North Dakota*
* Big Sky Conference games