The year 1 A.D. (After Dearica) would seem an unlikely time for a Golden Age to be dawning on Wake Forest women’s basketball.
But there are strong signs that may be the case for the Deacons team that will play host to No. 2 Notre Dame (24-1, 12-0) at 7 p.m. today at Joel Coliseum.
Even with the loss of Dearica Hamby, the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, to graduation and several other key players to injury, the Deacons are breaking ground that hasn’t been furrowed in almost 30 years. Their 15-11 record and 6-7 mark in ACC play is deceiving, having far more to do with their stumbling 0-5 start in conference play than the way they’ve played while winning four in a row and 6 of 8 over the past month.
And what a month it’s been for a program that hasn’t had a winning record against ACC competition or played in the NCAA Tournament since 1987-88, when Joe Sanchez was head coach and current coach Jen Hoover, then known as Jenny Mitchell, was a star freshman.
Hoover is in her fourth season as head coach.
“Our kids are continuing to work hard every day,’’ Hoover said Tuesday. “They believe in our system, and I think they’re more and more comfortable with playing with each other.
“And as young a group as we have, they’re finally comfortable with expectations and they kind of know the ins and outs of our conference and realize that it never gets any easier,” she said.
Beating a Notre Dame team riding into Joel Coliseum on a 17-game winning streak would be one of the great upsets in women’s basketball this season. The Deacons are carrying the momentum of their first victory over Duke since March 1993, their first five-game winning streak in ACC play since 1987-88, and their first sweep of in-state rivals Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State since that same season.
Before Wake Forest’s 64-58 home victory over the Blue Devils on Sunday, Duke had beaten the Deacons 45 straight times.
It has been quite a run for a team picked to finish 14th in the ACC after the loss of Hamby, the sixth overall pick of the WNBA now playing for the San Antonio Stars. Hoover said the outside perception the Deacons couldn’t overcome the loss of the 6-3 Hamby was not shared by those inside the program.
“I think they realized as a team we have a lot of options and a lot of versatility now,” Hoover said. “Now we’re kind of figuring out how to play together, and we’ve got more than one or two people that are hitting shots or being able to score for us or making a play.
“And I really think we’re buying in on the defensive end.”
Those paying attention recognized that each of Hoover’s last three recruiting classes has been ranked in the Top 25. The class that is now sophomores included Amber Campbell, a 5-9 guard who leads the Deacon with 13.7 points a game. The most recent class includes Ariel Stephenson, a 5-10 guard averaging 12.6 points and Elisa Penna, a 6-3 forward averaging 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Penna, a native of Italy who became eligible at the end of the fall semester, has given the team a lift at a time all teams need one in the middle of a long season.
“Adding Elisa Penna, Dec. 26, I think they’ve adjusted to her, how she plays and what she’s like as a player,” Hoover said.
Few, if any players in women’s college basketball are playing better than Campbell, who was named by the United States Basketball Writers Association as the Player of the Week after scoring a career-high 27 points against Duke.
“She’s playing really well right now,” Hoover said. “She’s really aggressive.
“We see that at times. We kind of joke that she’s got another speed, another gear. The ‘Jet’ is what we call her. Teammates tell her, ‘Let’s see the Jet, turn the jets on.’”
Still the pieces would not have all come together without the contributions and support from older players, in particular Milan Quinn, a 6-1 junior forward averaging 10 points and a team-most 8.7 rebounds.
“Milan Quinn, last year, sat in my office and said, ‘I want to be a Dearica Hamby,’” Hoover said. “I can’t say enough about the way she’s playing for us, the confidence she’s playing with and how excited she is to be an underclassmen. She’s really taken ownership on that.”
A strong month, in itself, doesn’t turn a long dormant program around. But strong recruiting can.
And perhaps the most exciting indicator that Wake Forest is at the dawn of as Golden Age is that all four players who have signed national letters of intent for next season — Raegyn Branch of Arlington, Tenn.; Alex Sharp of Melbourne, Australia; Ona Udoh of Fayetteville; and Tyra Whitehead of Richmond — have all been ranked as four-star recruits.