Women’s team looks to continue program’s winning ways

Courtesy of Athletic Department
Courtesy of Athletic Department

Rich Donahue | The Duquesne Duke

As the 2014-2015 season approaches, the women’s basketball program has many questions left unanswered.

Who will replace Wumi Agunbiade, Orsi Szecsi and Raegan Moore? What will the starting five look like? Will the Dukes make another post season appearance?

Head coach Dan Burt enters his second season at the helm with a young team that will be tested from the beginning.

“We are very unproven and inexperienced,” Burt said. “We are going to be challenged to find consistency early in the season.”

Last season, the Dukes benefited from having one of the most experienced teams in the Atlantic 10. After going through a rough non-conference that included NCAA Tournament teams West Virginia, DePaul and Notre Dame, the women’s squad raced out to an 8-1 record in the A-10 as the calendar turned to February. But the wheels fell off the wagon as the Dukes entered the stretch run of their schedule.

Injuries and a string of tough losses had the Dukes limping to a 10-6 record in the A-10 and dried up almost any hope of a NCAA Tourney bid. The only chance to get into the NCAA tournament that has eluded them for so long was running the table in the A-10 tournament. The Dukes, who were the sixth seed, won their first game versus Rhode Island, but would lose their following game to Fordham. The team settled for their sixth straight berth to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. They defeated Mount St. Mary’s in the first round before losing to the Michigan Wolverines in the second round.
In addition to qualifying for the WNIT in six straight seasons, the Dukes have also won 20 or more games in each of those years. This year, the goal remains the same as before.

“We want at least a 20-win season and make it to post season play,” Burt said.

The Dukes return two starters from last year’s team in guards April Robinson and Olivia Bresnahan. Robinson, a junior, is the only returning player who averaged over 10 points a game with 10.8 per. Bresnahan, a senior, started 20 games last season and averaged 8.9. The only other players on the roster with starting experience are seniors Jose-Ann Johnson and Belma Nurkic. Johnson started 14 games at center before injuries slowed her season. Nurkic has started 23 games at guard for the Dukes, but only one of those was last season.

Even with the lack of experience on the roster, Robinson explained the team has developed a family atmosphere.

While last year’s team had no shortage of energy both on and off the court, Robinson said this year’s group is much more in touch with each other, from the seniors to the freshmen.

The youth of the Dukes mixed with the losses of Agunbiade, Szeci and Moore has many outsiders not believing in this team. Unlike in previous years when the team was picked to finish amongst the best in the A-10, the experts think the Dukes will take a step back. The Dukes were picked to finish seventh in the A-10, down from fourth in last year’s preview. Coach Burt said he believed they would be ranked much lower, but he did not put much thought into the ranking.

“I thought we would be ninth or 10th,” Burt admitted. “We lost couple of cornerstones in our program and we didn’t return many kids other than April Robinson who scored a lot last year. To be picked seventh, I’m happy with that but it really means nothing.”

The road back to glory will not be an easy one for the Dukes, at least early on. The Dukes will open their season at home versus Princeton Tigers. According to Burt, Princeton presents a tough test as they are projected to win the Ivy League this season. After the game against Princeton, the Red & Blue will welcome Syracuse to the Palumbo Center. The Orange are currently ranked No. 25 in the AP Women’s basketball poll. Other notable non-conference games for the Dukes include road matchups with Green Bay and Providence and a home game against crosstown rival Pittsburgh. Though the schedule looks daunting early on, Nurkic reassured that once the team gets going, nothing will stop them.

“We just need to get our chemistry going,” Nurkic said. “Get the little nerves all out the first couple of games and after that we will be set.”

Whether or not the team gets back to the postseason, this year should be a fun one to watch. Burt praised freshmen Tyra Jones and Tanesha Sutton for their work in practice. Sophomores Kyasia Duling, Brianna Thomas and Amadea Szamosi have made vast improvements from their freshman seasons. Even if the team fails to meet the expectations set by Burt, the future does look bright. Maybe even brighter than before.