Oct. 16, 2009
Eighth grade science class taught us that alone, sodium and chlorine are poisonous. Alone, they are deadly. Alone, you should avoid each at all costs. But together, formed into common table salt, they are essential to life. The magic that makes it happen? Chemistry.
The Northern Illinois women's basketball team opens practice Friday night at 7:30 p.m., trying to find a bit of that magic chemistry for the 2009-10 season, as head coach Carol Owens embarks on her fifth year at the helm of the Huskies. Owens, a Northern Illinois hall-of-famer and member of the Huskies' first NCAA Tournament team, has experienced the kind of chemistry it takes to get to the top.
"I know how chemistry is when you have a championship team," Owens said. "I think we have that potential in being that."
While Owens believes her team can play at an elite level this season, she also knows the Huskies have to improve each day to get there.
"I know what we have on this team, its time to step up and show what we have," Owens said.
While last season ended with a disappointing first round loss in the Mid-American Conference Tournament, the result instilled a resolve in the Huskies to train harder than ever during the offseason to prepare for 2009-10.
"This was the first year that everyone was able to work out this summer, work on their game, get stronger, get in better shape, and that hasn't been the case at all since I've been here," Owens said.
The hard work in the summer has carried into the fall. The Huskies are entering the season with a sense of purpose, according to Owens.
"As we go into this year, I think the players are hungry," she said. "We still have a ways to go, but I like where our attitude is, the vision of our team, how hard they're working."
That diligent ethic on the practice court and in the weight room has resulted in a team that Owens said is entering the season ahead of any team she has coached. With a core of nine returning letterwinners and three starters, the Huskies are poised to continue the forward momentum.
The Northern Illinois starting frontcourt will be among the best in the Mid-American Conference. All-MAC performer Ebony Ellis
, who garnered honorable mention accolades last year as a sophomore, returns for her junior year to anchor the Huskies inside. The conference's second-best rebounder, Ellis averaged 8.8 boards per contest, and ranks second in scoring among Huskie returners with 9.5 points per game. More dangerous than her averages is her efficiency, as she scored at a 49 percent clip from the field as a sophomore.
"Ebony is that leader by example," Owens said. "I think she is probably her worst critic sometimes, and that gives her a work ethic that has made her focus on being better for us this year."
Fellow junior Mauvolyene Adams will line up opposite Ellis on the Northern Illinois frontline. One of the most versatile forwards in the MAC, Adams ranked in the top five on the team in seven different statistical categories last season. Adams found her way into the starting lineup nine games into the season, and proved she belonged shortly after. Second to only Ellis on the team in rebounding at 5.3 per game, Adams also averaged 7.3 points while shooting 43.5 percent from the field.
"(Mauvolyene) is as good as it gets in terms of skill," Owens said. "She is probably one of the best forwards in our conference because she can handle the ball, she can face up, she can post-up, she can rebound, she can do it all."
Freshman Shaakira Haywood will round out the Huskie frontcourt. A 6-2 product of Canton, Mich., Haywood was a three-time team captain and two-time team Most Valuable Player at Plymouth High School before coming to NIU.
With such a strong inside game, the Huskies can expect teams to pack it in defensively in a bid to shut down the inside. But Northern Illinois has a backcourt willing to punish opponents who play an unbalanced defense.
Senior sharpshooter Kylie York has familiarized herself with three-point territory in her three years in the Cardinal and Black. The Fishers, Ind. native has the Hoosier touch from the outside. With 201 made threes in her career, York needs just 2t0 to become the top long-range shooter in Huskie history. Her 76 treys last season were third all-time, behind the 77 she hit the year before, and Denise Dove's 80 threes in 1988-89. But Owens knows there's much more the York than a pretty shot.
"We are very in sync with each other; I know how she thinks, and she knows how I think," Owens said. "She is a student of the game, too. She watches a lot of film, which has given her good court vision and passing."
The stats bear out Owens' description of York, who last year dished out 48 assists and had the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team.
While Ellis, Adams and York return to the starting roles they played in 2008-09, one player will be changing roles from spark plug off the bench, to on-court coach. Junior point guard Marke Freeman returns for her second season at NIU after blitzing Huskie rivals to earn MAC Sixth Player of the Year honors last year. The team's top returning scorer, Freeman averaged 9.6 points per game as a relentless point guard with a knack for making passes opponents never saw coming, and knocking down lay-ups no one thought possible.
"She wants to win, she wants to win bad," Owens said of Freeman. "You can't teach the level of competitiveness that you want from someone who has the ball in their hands all the time, and she has that."
The fifth slot in the Huskies starting line-up, a role filled for two seasons by Shari' Welton, is still up for grabs. But a lack of a clear-cut favorite to take the spot doesn't mean a lack of talented candidates. The most experienced of the bunch is senior Terriel Cannon, a versatile guard who is coming off a knee injury.
"Terriel can do a little bit of everything," Owens said. "She can shoot, she can rebound, and has the experience."
Other possibilities include sophomores Sarah Rogers, who averaged 10.2 minutes per game as a freshman, and Tenisha Wilson, who proved she can score with a nine-point outburst against UMBC in just her third collegiate game. Owens said she can see any and all three playing significant roles in 2009-10.
Other players that will factor in with the Huskies include junior Bianca Brown, sophomore Courtney Shelton and freshman Brittney Callahan. Brown has been a steady part of the Huskie lineup for two seasons, playing in 44 games with two starts. Shelton saw action in 13 games as a freshman, and Callahan will look to follow in her footsteps by cracking the rotation in her first season.
The talent for the Huskies to compete at a championship level is all in place. On the 20th anniversary of the team she led to the Northern Star Conference Championship, Owens knows what it takes to get there.
"We have to continue to get better with our chemistry as a team," she said. "Not that our chemistry is bad, but will it be at the level we need it to be for this year? That still remains to be seen. But I like where we are at, and I like where we are going."