Two games away.
That is what stood between the Texas Tech women’s basketball team and at least the WNIT this season. The strength of schedule was there, ranking No. 22 in the nation. Auburn had the No. 20 ranked schedule this season and finished 17-14 — it made the NCAA tournament.
“In our league, the way it shook out, we were one, maybe two conference games away from going into the NIT,” Texas Tech coach Candi Whitaker said. “How hard it is compete in an established league like the Big 12? West Virginia finishes sixth and their coach has been there 16 years. Iowa State finishes right above them and their staff has been there 17, 18 years. The establishment of this league makes it hard to rebuild and you have to understand what you are up against every night out.”
The Lady Raiders finished 14-17, despite a 10-4 start that saw it get votes in the Associated Press top 25 and see its RPI ranking rise to No. 21 after an upset of West Virginia at United Supermarkets Arena in mid-January.
It was on the cusp of maybe becoming that next Mississippi State or South Carolina — two teams that have rebuilt their programs and played for the national title on Sunday.
But, the Lady Raiders lost their next nine games, before finishing out their last six games at 3-3, which included two loses to Baylor team ranked in the top-five in the nation.
Tech won five games on its home floor against the Big 12, but didn’t pick up a win on the road, going 0-9.
“We beat five out of the nine teams in our league and that is the first time we have done that (in my tenure),” Whitaker said. “We had some good wins and had some clutch quarters. We came from behind and we were in every situation. I think they can really roll that experience into next season.”
Building on the block
A year and a half ago, before Whitaker even began her third season as coach, let alone her fourth, she posted a picture on Twitter of herself jumping in the air.
At the time, she couldn’t say why. But, the word got out quickly, five-star prospect Brittany Brewer was going to join the program. Brewer had her ups and downs during the season, cracking the starting lineup at the beginning of Big 12 play. She didn’t score on the road against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, but she also scored in double figures fives times during conference action. Brewer finished the season averaging 5.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game and Whitaker knows she is only going to get better.
“I want her to dream as big as possible because I really believe in her,” Whitaker said. “She has not played a lot a like lot of kids who played on the AAU circuit. Her first was really the summer before her senior year and that competition takes you to another level when you rise to the challenge.
“When she got here, she figured out she need to be stronger and now we get her into the weight room (this summer) and with how she is going to I don’t want to put her in a box or a limit on here.
“Because who knows how good she can be.”
Brewer is just one of the building blocks that energized the Lady Raider faithful this season. Next season that should be 6-foot-5 center Erin Degrate, who sat out last season after transferring from Louisville.
“Add Erin Degrate to the mix and our inside game can be a big strength of ours, where we didn’t get a ton of points there because it was the first time for our kids,” Whitaker said. “Working out Erin out and watching her against our team she is extremely difficult to guard on the low block. Her biggest challenge is getting in shape and we you can see what what (Baylor’s) Kalani Brown did just by getting in shape.
“With her size and her reach and you can’t guard her.”
With Terry and the addition of Degrate on the low block that could mean a lot of playing time for Brewer at power forward, along with stretch 4s Dayo Olabode and Zuri Sanders.
“You will see (Brewer) evolve into more of a true-4 and she has to be really good from 15 and she has shown signs she can be,” Whitaker said. “She is 100 percent committed to doing whatever her team needs here to do to win and you can use her in both situations. They are all different post players because of their God-given size and abilities.”
Learning from experience
Texas Tech only loses senior off its roster — Ivonne Cook-Taylor — for next season.
“You can’t replace experience without anything but experience,” Whitaker said. “Everyone has to gain more responsibility. No question we needed a bucket we called her number and that is my memory of her. Every time we were struggling Ivonne delivered and that is what seniors do.”
Next season’s roster, barring any unforeseen transfers, will feature five seniors, including Larryn Brooks and Jada Terry, who will both be counted on for extended minutes.
“(Brooks) also has a scorer’s mentality, but I thought she did a good job of pushing the tempo and I though she finished the season as well as anyone,” Whitaker said.
Meanwhile, Caldwell and Zuri Sanders will be juniors.
Caldwell, who burst onto the scene with a 38-point barrage against Texas A&M and was shooting 47.3 percent from behind the arc through the first 13 games of the season, slumped to 27.5 percent the rest of the way.
“After the A&M game I am sure people said ‘Can you do this every game?’ Well, probably not. But, she had great games that helped us win. She put her team on her back in games and in fourth quarters. We often went as she went. She is a special player. You may not have that special performance every night but you can effect us in a lot of ways. Leadership and effort has to be consistent, everything else will take care of itself.”
But, Tech’s sophomores, Degrate, Brewer and Arella Guirantes, could determine much of the team’s success in 2017-18 — a season that will mark the 25th anniversary of Texas Tech’s national title.
Guirantes was the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 9.9 points per game. And before a couple of injuries and the stiffer challenge of Big 12 play slowed her, was averaging more than 12 points per game.
“Rella is really crafty and she elevates well,” Whitaker said. “She blocks shots and gets to the rim, she just has to develop her game at the arc. She has a tremendous work ethic and we are excited about her future.”
More than anything, with six new faces in the rotation for much of the 2016-17 season, Whitaker knows it goes beyond just what the players learned on the court, it is also what she knows about them.
“I know so much more about our team than I did 6 months ago,” Whitaker said. “When you coach them through the tough parts (of the season), you know what they need and where you can help them grow as players and people.”