Lucky? Miracle? Phenomenon?
Call it whatever you want, but after five years of losing, the Kent State women’s basketball team surprised everyone with a 19-13 record to win the Mid-American Conference East title.
Maybe it was a culture change in the making.
Perhaps it was because they had the fourth best scorer in women’s college basketball, Larissa Lurken. Maybe it was the addition of first-year head coach Todd Starkey.
“He came in, and it was like he knew us for years,” senior guard Naddiyah Cross said. “We were like his long-lost daughters. He’s like a dad that yells at you during your game, then has dinner waiting for you when you get home. He really cares about us.”
Losing can be contagious, but so can winning. Starkey and the Flashes believe that they can build off of their success.
Starkey would be the first one to admit that that Lurken was a big reason for Kent’s success last season.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to play without Larissa,” Starkey said. “She had the single best season in Kent State basketball history. We walked into games last year saying ‘we have Larissa with us, we’re going to be fine.’”
But this year’s team has something that the team hasn’t had going into the season since 2010: confidence.
The Flashes now are held to a higher standard.
“The biggest difference this year is the expectations we have on ourselves,” forward McKenna Stevens said. “In practice stupid mistakes used to slide under the rug. That stuff is not OK now. Before we would just move on to the next drill if we messed up, but now we keep doing the same thing until we get it right.”
The Flashes were picked to finish last in the 2016-2017 season. This year the expectations are much higher. Kent State lost its best player and is still picked to finish second in the MAC East.
“When I got here last year, my focus was to change the mentality towards winning,” Starkey said. “This team last year just hoped we could be in some games. Now we go into games expecting to win. Our upperclassmen have carried that mindset into this season. We expect to win a championship.”
The Flashes’ season ended last year in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament when they fell to Michigan 67-60. To the Flashes, it was more of a beginning than an end.
“I don’t think any of us realize what we did last year,” Golden said. “It’s crazy now to think about it though. We went from single-digit wins to tripling that in one year. If I took a step back I’d realize that what we did was extremely special.”
Recruiting is perhaps the most important part of maintaining success. The Flashes’ winning season gives them a chance to compete with bigger schools to get big recruits.
The Flashes announced five 2018 recruits this week. Perhaps the team’s best class ever.
“Last season’s success is a huge selling point for recruits,” Starkey said. “When families of recruits look at what we’ve been able to do in a short period of time, it gives them confidence in the program and coaching staff.”
Starkey believes they have recruited a strong nucleus to build the future around. The players are proud that they have contributed to future success as well.
“It’s extremely important to maintain a winning culture for years after we leave,” Cross said. “I’ve been through the multiple years of not being good. We know what that feels like and how much it affects the people that were previously here. You want to look back and still be proud of Kent State women’s basketball.”
Players on the current team have experienced change as well. Before last season, players hesitated to tell people they were on the team. They almost hid from the exposure of being a part of a losing team.
“The worst thing was going to an elementary school,” junior guard Alexa Golden said. “Kids would ask us if we were good. We’d just be like, ‘We’re going to try to be good this year.’ That was probably the worst thing. It means a lot that people recognize us now and it’s not embarrassing.”
Now they realize that they are a part of something special.
“They almost seemed embarrassed before last year,” Starkey said. “Now people are starting to ask them to do more stuff in the community. They are carrying themselves not in an over-confident way, but just in a way that we are proud to represent this program and school.”
Starkey wants to make women’s basketball a sport that students support on a nightly basis.
“Several people came up to us last year and said they enjoy watching us play,” Starkey said. “That makes me happy that there is some buzz around these girls. They play hard. They play at a high level. They want to win, and a lot of the time they’re winning now.”
He wants women’s basketball to become a cool thing to do. Considering how he turned things around last year, it’s tough to doubt him when he sets a goal.
“Coach Starkey and the assistants brought a different attitude and culture to this team,” Stevens said. “Our team was completely separated. We were shattered as a team even though we all cared about each other. Coach Starkey brought us all back together.”
There is no denying the difference from last year.
“We have the atmosphere where we know we can win,” Cross said. “We don’t just hope we can win, but now we want to win every game we play in. And that’s what we should feel. We are the team that turned things around.”