The Texas Tech women’s basketball team entered this season missing just one starter from its 2011 NCAA tournament team.
It’s early — and the Lady Raiders have yet to face the kind of competition they will see in the Big 12 Conference — but Tech appears to be filling the role of graduated forward Teena Wickett with aplomb.
Post players Kierra Mallard, Kelsi Baker, Shauntal Nobles and Ebony Walker combined for 48 points and 28 rebounds on Sunday, as No. 19 Tech cruised to a 94-54 win over Louisiana-Monroe en route to the World Vision Basketball Invitational title at United Spirit Arena.
Coach Kristy Curry and her staff know what they have in Mallard — the versatile senior forward has made strides in her maturity level and as a low-post passer, among other facets of her game — and through the season’s first two-plus weeks, contributions from a host of other players have the low post emerging as an area of strength for Tech (5-0).
Curry said she saw improvement in each of the three tournament games from Baker, who established herself inside early against the WarHawks (0-7) and finished with a team-high 14 points to along with 10 rebounds.
“I thought that Baker really got better with each game,” Curry said. “Starting the first night she looked a little glazed over, and then the second night she looked better, and the third night (as well). We’ve got to continue to get her conditioning and stamina to continue to improve. It’s amazing the numbers she can put up in 19, 15, 14 minutes. If we can get her to 22 or 25 ...”
Baker had plenty of help. Nobles followed a career-high 11-point performance on Saturday with 10 more against ULM, while Mallard (who averaged 13.3 points per game during the tourney) narrowly missed a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds. No Lady Raider played more than 28 minutes, and 11 players scored.
“We really need to have a power post presence,” Curry said. “We don’t need to be so finesse, those four don’t. I love our depth. I love the energy that Shauntal and Ebony are bringing off the bench.”
Walker turned in easily the best game of her career on Sunday, tallying a career-high 13 points (five fewer than she scored all of last season) in 10 minutes. Curry said that when asked throughout the preseason, she named Walker as team’s most improved player.
“She’s got a chance to be a special player,” Curry said. “She’s someone who has bought into the team concept. ‘Whatever you need from me, I’m willing to do.’ That’s a great compliment to her.”
The sophomore, an Albuquerque, N.M., native, said her improvement has much to do with playing against the likes of Mallard every day in practice.
“I’ve just tried to come in and work as much as I can,” Walker said. “When game time comes, I just try to be that spark off the bench and do what I have to do.”
Monique Smalls, who registered 11 steals over three games and was named the invitational’s MVP, said the chemistry with the team’s emerging forward group — Baker, Nobles and Walker are all sophomores — is strengthening by the game.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth,” Smalls said. “Ebony, her freshman year, had her moments, and then now to see her improve and come into games and rebound like crazy, that’s what we need. When our post players get into foul trouble, it’s good to have Shauntal, Ebony or Kelsi come in and back up Kierra and (Jordan Barncastle, who scored six points on Sunday).”
Curry targeted rebounding as a necessary area of improvement during her team’s three games of the tourney, and behind the forward group — not to mention strong guard effort, particularly from Chynna Brown, who had 16 boards in the three games — Tech out-rebounded its opponents 164-94.
After three straight games, Curry said the Lady Raiders will off today, then back to practice on Tuesday to prepare for Wednesday’s home game against Texas State.
Then Tech’s first big test of the season awaits: Saturday’s showdown with Penn State at United Spirit Arena.
But Curry said attention hasn’t been turned to the Nittany Lions just yet.
“It’s not about Penn State,” she said. “It’s about us becoming better and about us focusing on getting the job done Wednesday night. That’s all that matters right now.”
Along with Smalls, Mallard and Brown were named to the all-tournament team. Dayon Hall-Jones (UMKC), Megan Herbert (Central Arkansas) and Elizabeth Torres (ULM) were also earned all-tournament honors.
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