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UT rides offensive stability into heart of SSC action
By DAVID NORRIE
Published December 30, 2005
Balance on offense has been the major philosophy behind coach Tom Jessee's rebuilding of the University of Tampa women's team, which he began working on when he arrived three years ago. It's also what Jessee claims to be the biggest reason for the team's impressive 9-2 start this season.
"Our whole concept in building the program is balance - inside and outside," Jessee said. "I feel like now we are at that point. We have eight or nine players that can start and I know a lot of coaches say that, but I do mean it."
Led by the inside-outside scoring tandem of center Shaneisha Walton and guard Tay Mathis, the Spartans are averaging more points per game this year (71.3) than in Jessee's first season in 2002-03, when the team finished 23-8 and made the NCAA Division II tournament.
That season, a senior-laden team won the Sunshine State Conference title behind the league's No. 2 scoring defense. Tampa's offensive output wasn't even in the top half of the SSC, ranking just sixth in the league with 63 points per game.
Scoring and offensive production have steadily improved since then. Through the first 11 games of this season Tampa trails only Rollins (9-0), last year's SSC champion, in scoring average. With more offensive weapons, it's a trend Jessee sees continuing.
"Our perimeter shooting and bench scoring has been our biggest strength," he said. "When teams break us down, they say slow down Walton and Mathis. But to do that they have to change strategy, which leaves other players open shots. That's a great luxury to have."
Before Thursday's game against Lenoir-Rhyne, the Spartans were shooting 43 percent. But they also maintain their stingy style of defense, holding opponents to 30 percent shooting.
Much of that can be attributed to the fact Jessee now has the ability to rotate players and keep fresh people on the court. It's a formula that has allowed him to distribute minutes to individuals based on their needs instead of the needs of the team at a given point in the game.
While Walton (15 ppg) and Mathis (10.8 ppg) are the only players averaging double figures in scoring, significant contributions on offense can be seen in the play of Erica Woodard, Juanita McClinton and Courtney Wilder, the remaining starters.
Woodard and McClinton are both shooting around 50 percent while Wilder has averaged almost seven points a game while filling in for an injured Shay Mackey who strained her knee in the second game of the season.
"Woodard is right where we expected her to be," Jessee said. "She is an athlete who jumps, rebounds, defends and runs the floor. Wilder and McClinton, both seniors, are difference makers who can put up big points in a hurry."
Breaking the season down into three parts - nonconference, conference and tournament play - Jessee feels Tampa can take its early success and parlay it into a strong push during January and February, when the meat of the SSC schedule comes into play.
He said it's that part of the season that will provide the real test.
"Conference play is always different," he said. "Most of the coaches have been around for years and have seen our players, knowing their strengths and weaknesses.
"They will try to work those weaknesses to their advantage. But now we're more versatile and I'm most proud of the balance we've achieved, which will make figuring us out much harder."