Tulane's women's basketball team will tip off its 2019 American Athletic Conference season Saturday looking to bounce back from going 5-11 last season, its worst record since joining the conference in the 2014-15 season.
The Green Wave, however, will be depending largely on three sophomores who are the core of the deepest team coach Lisa Stockton has had in recent years. Sophomore starters Sierra Cheatham, Krystal Freeman and Kaila Anderson are big reasons Tulane is 10-3 heading into its AAC opener against East Carolina.
Freeman leads the team in scoring (12.5) and rebounding (6.2), with Cheatham next (10.8 ppg) and Anderson, a point guard and captain averaging 4.2 assists with 2.4 turnovers per game.
“The play of those three individuals has changed everything for us,” said Stockton, who is in her 25th season as Green Wave coach. “They have experience, so they're not coming in without knowing what to expect (in AAC play). They all contribute, and they really use their assets every game.
“They are also part of a very unselfish team, which is the reason I think we can do well.”
Tulane finished 14-17 overall last season, only the third losing season in Stockton's tenure. However, the Green Wave had an encouraging nonconference with notable victories at LSU and most recently against Central Michigan, which returned four starters back from a team that reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 last season.
The sophomores emerged during offseason work to give the Wave a strong core. Freeman, a power forward who averaged 1.9 points per game last season, “came out of nowhere,” Stockton said. Freeman said she and Anderson, who had 64 turnovers to just 67 assists playing 17.2 minutes per game last season, all but made a pact to be much improved this season.
“We're roommates, and we're really close like sisters,” Anderson said. “As freshmen we had our highs and our lows, and we'd get down on ourselves. We'd have moments when we cried, and the other one was there to lift us up.
“I know there were times when Krystal felt really bad, and we kept reminding her 'Don't give up; you're here for a reason, and that's because you're good.' ”
The three are of different personalities. Anderson is very aggressive and assertive, a natural leader. Cheatham is quiet and very serious about basketball. And, it's as if Freeman has come out of a shell socially and on the court.
“Krystal plays aggressively now, and she plays like she wants to win,” Stockton said. “I definitely believe their combination of personalities has helped each other.”
Before last season, Tulane had finished fifth or tied for fifth in the AAC each of its first three seasons in the conference. After receiving an NCAA bid in its first season in the conference, the Wave made consecutive WNIT appearances.
Stockton said this team has her optimistic.
“Our seniors have also contributed a lot to this season, especially with their leadership,” Stockton said. “But what was disappointing about last season is that we were not consistent from game to game.
“One of the keys for us is we have to keep improving through the season. You can't be the team you are right now when February comes around. So far, we've been pretty good at that.”
The Green Wave has experience in senior starting center Harlyn Wyatt, junior starting guard Kayla Manuirirangi, and senior power forward Meredith Schulte and senior guard Tatyana Lofton off the bench.
Freshmen Erin Gutierrez, Dynah Jones and Mia Heide play significant minutes in the 10-player rotation. Sophomores and freshmen combined account for 69 percent of the Wave's scoring, 65 percent of the minutes played, 74 percent of assists and 57 percent of the rebounds. How they will stack up in a conference that has perennial power Connecticut, as well as Temple and up-and-comer South Florida remains to be seen.
Tulane was picked to finish ninth in conference, which has drawn the ire of the Green Wave, particularly the three sophomores.
“We all feel like we have something to prove,” Freeman said. “Personally, I feel we are capable of finishing way higher than ninth. We are capable of surprising a lot of people in the conference.”