Women’s basketball season preview
Edwards and a strong backcourt could bring this team back to the conference’s elite
The American University women’s basketball team had a shaky 2019-20 season, finishing seventh in the conference, yet it nearly snuck away with a win in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament falling 46-44 to the second-seeded Boston University. Throughout the season, the Eagles were riddled with inconsistent offensive performances, poor rebounding and a bevy of underclassmen who still looked a year away.
This year, AU is right there with the conference’s elite. The team’s 2021 revamped roster is a dark horse candidate to dethrone Bucknell atop the Patriot League, possessing a ferocious defensive backcourt and the conference’s best shot-creator in junior guard Jade Edwards.
Unlike last year, this roster can bank on continuity. AU returns 60 percent of its scoring from 2019-20, with many key players entering their third year on the roster.
That doesn’t mean the subtractions won’t sting. With Patriot League second-teamer Kaitlyn Marenyi’s graduation, AU loses a marksman and vocal leader. On top of this blow, the absence of junior guard Maddie Doring (opting-out with a foot injury) and forward Morgan Bartner (graduated) strikes the Eagles of two consistent starters.
“Three-point shooting, that’s probably not going to be our strength this year, but we’re really good at twos, so let’s hope we get more of them this year,” head coach Megan Gebbia said.
Senior forward TaeKenya Cleveland is also opting out, and sophomore Sadie Stetson will miss her second consecutive season after reaggravating an ACL injury over the summer.
“You have a bunch of people last year that contributed great minutes for us,” Gebbia said. “And yeah, you're not going to replace what Katie brought each day and her leadership. But again, I think we have a really great group of juniors, and obviously Indeya [Sanders] as the lone senior this year, who are ready to take over the reins.”
Taking those reins is Edwards, who is expected to carry the Eagles at both ends of the floor after notching a selection on the Preseason All-Patriot League Team. As a sophomore, she led AU with 14.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game, showcasing elite athleticism and advanced shot-creation from all three levels.
Only three women’s basketball players in the Patriot League scored more points per game than Edwards last season, all of whom graduated earlier after the 2019-20 season. There’s certainly another level that she can reach in becoming more consistent, which she is the first to acknowledge.
“I think my weakness was making adjustments,” Edwards said. “I became the focus of the other team’s scouting report, and they would take things away. I didn't make the adjustment quick enough early in-conference, take what was open.”
But no one in the conference could do more for her team in crunch time, and perhaps no one is more confident in the team’s chances in 2021.
“I think we still have one of the most talented rosters, even with Maddie leaving,” Edwards said in November. “I'm always gonna be confident in our team. If we get a chance to lock in, we can get on a streak. We can do it.”
Breaking down the rest of the roster
1. Emily Fisher / Jr.
2. Indeya Sanders / Sr.
3. Jade Edwards / Jr.
4. Taylor Brown / Jr.
5. Lauren Stack / So.
Fisher and Sanders round out a backcourt of energy-inducing, defensive-minded guards. Both guards are comfortable creating their own shots, albeit on a lower volume than their score-first teammates. Both showed flashes of offensive brilliance in the past, but AU’s ceiling will only rise if either can generate consistent production.
Fisher was the team’s sparkplug last year. While she saw limited minutes during most of conference play, she found her footing at the end of the season as an interior scorer and transition threat off of the bench.
Sanders, meanwhile, is a suave ball-handler and pass-first creator. As a junior, she averaged 6.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and led the team with 4.2 assists on top of earning an all-defensive selection.
She’s also an advanced stats darling. Lineups with her on the floor were about 21.7 points better per every 100 possessions than lineups with her off the court. Not only was this the highest rating on the team, but it also grades out in the 96th percentile nationwide. Rounding out returning players in the backcourt is Laura Graytok, who has potential as a spark-plug scorer and shooter off the bench.
Three freshmen join the veterans in the backcourt. Point guard Kayla Henning offers a fast-paced alternative to AU’s slower pace and comes in immediately as a high-level playmaker. Guard Ivy Bales brings size to the wing at 5’10” and has impressed with her mid-range shot, while Keagan Schwab, a walk-on, has a silky outside shot and her presence on the perimeter could help create space for the team.
However, no one on this roster needs the ball in their hands to be successful, which is helpful for a scheme that relies so much on off-ball movement. While the loss of Marenyi and Doring will sting, Gebbia is ready to keep the ball moving.
“The offense is very equal opportunity,” Gebbia said. “There’s going to be just more shots; it’s just a matter of who’s taking them and who is making them.”
AU’s four- and five-spots are less experienced than its backcourt, but reports out of practice are that Taylor Brown is ready to make the leap. While she’s cemented her spot as a starter, the rest of the rotation is written in chalk, not ink.
“I've seen some growth and Taylor Brown in particular, she's played really well in practice so I'm really happy to see where she's at,” Gebbia said.
Stack will start at the five during the opening weekend of action. While she lacked the playing time to become a consistent offensive weapon last season, she’s a do-everything forward who could slide into a Bartner-type role as a lengthy defender and post-scoring option.
Fellow sophomore forward Karla Vres is another option with promising defensive ability and a silky mid-range shot. She and her teammates will have to be tenacious on the boards, as AU ranked as the eighth-worst rebounding team in the country last season. Vres will provide some size inside at 6’3”. Freshman Emily Johns will also crack the rotation as an automatic post scorer who could help relieve some of AU’s rebounding woes.
The Eagles will play 16 games against just five conference opponents to minimize travel, with the season-opener Jan. 2 at noon against Loyola in Bender Arena. Fans are not allowed in the game due to restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus.
AU’s schedule looks favorable on paper, with six games against Loyola, which ranked seventh in the preseason poll, and four against Navy, which ranked last.
Loyola finished 5-13 last year and will not have Stephanie Karcz, who led the team in scoring and led all of Division I basketball in steals. Navy, meanwhile, is 0-4 to start this season, as both military academies were permitted to play outside of the conference. AU will also play two games against Lehigh, Lafayette and the defending champion Bucknell.