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Tulsa Has High Expectations For 2OOO-O1

Senior forward Denise Wagner
Senior forward Denise Wagner
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One year ago the Tulsa Golden Hurricane reached new heights when it posted the second best season in school history with a 14-15 overall record, a fourth-place 9-5 league mark and a semifinals finish at the Western Athletic Conference Tournament. Tulsa was 9-4 on its home floor, including 6-1 in conference action.

Tulsa Head Coach Kathy McConnell-Miller begins her second season at the helm of the TU women's basketball program. McConnell-Miller, the 2000 WAC Coach of the Year, returns six letterwinners, including two starters, for the 2000-01 season.

"We're going into this season with high expectations," McConnell-Miller said. "I think the players feel pretty good about what they have accomplished over the past year. "We have two starters back from last year--Carla Morrow and Denise Wagner--and we'll rely on them to carry the load this season. They're the most experienced players on our team both on and off the court. Both of them have been very consistent over the past two seasons," McConnell-Miller added.

Tulsa's success in 1999-2000 paid large dividends in the recruiting department as the Hurricane welcomes six newcomers for the 2000-01 campaign, including four freshmen and two junior transfers.

"This year's team is very young. Our ability to maintain the level of play from the non-league games to the conference season is going to be the most challenging aspect for this team. We have six newcomers, including four freshmen, and with youth and inexperience, there are sometimes a lot of ups and downs. I think that's where good team chemistry plays an important part," McConnell-Miller said.

As the Hurricane continues to build into a conference power, Tulsa will look to surpass last year's win total and continue its climb toward its first-ever WAC Championship.

"The key for us to have a successful season will depend on how quickly the newcomers come along and how well the upperclassmen lead them. If we can jell quickly and find a good team chemistry, we should have a very good season," McConnell-Miller said.

The strength of the team this season lies in Tulsa's frontcourt. With eight players, including four returning letterwinners, occupying either the forward or center positions, this area should be the backbone of the team.

Senior forward Denise Wagner (6'1") will head up TU's frontline. Wagner was the leading rebounder and shot blocker a year ago with 6.2 boards and 1.1 blocks per game and completed the season fourth on the team in scoring with 8.8 points per contest. Wagner started 28 of TU's 29 games and pulled down 10 or more rebounds in 10 games, including a career-high 15 vs. UTEP. Wagner is the Hurricane's all-time leader for blocked shots (44) and enters her final season ranked 10th among the school's career scoring leaders with 533 points. She also ranks eighth in both career rebounds (325) and steals (90).

"We'll look to Denise for her scoring, rebounding and just her overall presence on the floor. She can be a post-up player, a small forward or step out and shoot from the perimeter. She is very difficult to defend because she is so agile and has so many weapons to her game," McConnell-Miller said.

Leela Farr (5'11") enters her junior season with 44 career games and 27 starts under her belt. Farr was a member of 1998 all-WAC Mountain Division Newcomer team as a freshman. After missing the 1998-99 season with an injury, she returned last season to average 3.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in 17 games.

"Leela is by far the most-improved player from last year's squad. She is in excellent physical condition, she's strong and is a very smart player. She's a very versatile player because she can play the small forward and the power forward."

Senior Rachel Henkelmann (5'8") provides solid depth and leadership. Henkelmann enters her final season as a Hurricane ranked eighth among TU leaders for games played with 69. Henkelmann saw action in 21 games last season and earned one start against Eastern Illinois.

"Rachel is another versatile player. She can also play at small or power forward. She is a very knowledgeable player who is very strong and aggressive. She has a great sense of getting position down on the block and knowing where to go to get the rebound. Rachel is a senior and we'll look to her for leadership," McConnell-Miller said.

Joining the returning letterwinners is freshman Kim Chiconas (6'1") from nearby Jenks. Chiconas, a three-year letterwinner at Jenks High School, led the Lady Trojans to the 6A state championship, a regional title and a conference crown as a senior. National PrepHoops and Greg Swaim's Midwest Basketball rated her as one of the top-10 players in Oklahoma.

"Kim is a local player who brings lots of energy and enthusiasm to the team. She is an extremely physical player. She compensates for her lack of height with her positioning, understanding of the game and pure physical capability," McConnell-Miller said.

At the small forward spot in the lineup is junior standout Carla Morrow (6'0"). Last season, Morrow not only became a legitimate scoring threat, but a solid rebounder as well. A two-year starter, Morrow was TU's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder with 9.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, respectively. She scored in double-figures in 14 games a year ago, including a career-high 20 points against Colorado State. Morrow begins her junior campaign ranked 10th among Tulsa's career rebounding leaders with 298, and sixth among career steals leaders with 94.

"I have high expectations for Carla this season, but I think her expectations for herself are even greater. She's not a vocal leader, but a player who leads by example. She will not allow anyone to outwork her on or off the court. Carla is a very team-oriented player and wins more than anything matter to her. She does not like to lose or fail. She has an excellent work ethic and is both mentally and physically prepared of this season," McConnell-Miller said.

Pushing Morrow for minutes will be freshman Kayla Elliott (5'9"). Elliott, a native of Oklahoma City, was a four-year letterwinner at Southeast High School. A 2000 all-state performer, Elliott led her team in scoring all four years of her prep career and finished first in rebounding and blocked shots as a senior.

"Kayla is most effective with the ball in her hands. She can penetrate and score, pull-up and hit an open jumper or post-up. She's very dangerous with the basketball. She sees the court well and understands the game," McConnell-Miller said.

Manning the middle of the lane could be freshman center Becky Heidotten (6'3"). A four-year letterwinner at Rosary High School in St. Louis, Mo., Heidotten completed her stellar prep career as an all-state selection in 2000. She led her team to a state championship as a sophomore and a runner-up finish as a freshman. She also guided Rosary High School to four-straight conference titles and two district championships. Midwest Basketball and National PrepHoops rated Heidotten as one of the top-5 players in Missouri.

"Becky has the potential to contribute immediately because of her quickness and agility. She could be a real impact player for us. As she gets stronger and gains more experience, she could be a physical force down low," McConnell-Miller said.

Although she won't play this season, junior-transfer Alyssa Shriver (6'3") will certainly add a presence to the paint in 2001-02. Shriver will sit out this season after transferring to Tulsa from Iowa State.

"This year off will be great for Alyssa. She provides a great force inside because she is so tall and agile. She really makes our post players better and has added a lot to our inside game," McConnell-Miller said.

Graduation took a heavy toll on Tulsa's backcourt with the departure of Kasie Pittman, Tammy Goyne and Emily Stagner. Pittman left TU as the school's all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals, while Goyne completed her career just behind Pittman in both steals and assists. Stagner provided experienced depth at both the point guard position as well as the off-guard spot.

Senior Athena Pirpich (5'4") is the only letterwinner returning to run the point position. Despite an injury-plagued season in 1999-2000, Pirpich played in 18 games and averaged 2.5 points per contest. She was one the Hurricane's top free throw shooters, connecting on 14-of-16 attempts (.875). Pirpich's best performance came against UTEP when she nailed 3-of-4 three-point attempts and finished with a career-high 11 points.

"Athena will play both the point- and off-guard positions. She's the purest shooter on our team. She has great range and consistency with her shot and possesses very good ball-handling skills. We expect a great deal of leadership from her in the backcourt. She's an extremely mature person who takes care of her teammates," McConnell-Miller said.

With just one point guard returning for the 2000-01 campaign, McConnell-Miller and her staff landed one of the nation's top assist leaders in junior Mia Williams (5'6"). Williams comes to Tulsa from Monroe Community College (NJCAA Division II) in Rochester, N.Y. In two seasons at Monroe, Williams averaged 10.8 points, 7.4 assists and 3.5 steals per game while leading the Tribunes to a combined mark of 66-5. As a sophomore, she earned first team all-region honors and NJCAA third-team All-America merits. Williams accomplished an even more remarkable feat as a Tribune, leading the nation in assists as a freshman and sophomore.

"Mia is coming off a great junior college career where she was an All-American. She has great skills and quickness and she likes to play an up-tempo game. It will take her some time to learn our system and the other players. She is a very coachable player who responds well. She's a `gym rat' who expects to win every time she steps on the floor," McConnell-Miller said.

Junior Rachel Hall (5'7") and freshman Candice Brewer (5`8") will look to fill Pittman's shoes this season. Hall played in all 29 games last season and earned the starting assignment against TCU and Colorado State.

"Rachel Hall is solid. She gives 100 percent everyday. She is capable of doing whatever it takes to succeed. She's athletic, strong and a very good player. Rachel will be relied on to play the off-guard this season. She's worked on her shot and is very confident player this season," McConnell-Miller said.

Brewer hails from Fayetteville, Ark., where she was a three-year letterwinner for the Lady Bulldogs. Brewer led Fayetteville High School to a state runner-up finish as a senior and garnered all-state honors in two straight seasons. She was a three-year all-conference performer and a member of the all-state tournament team as a senior. Both Midwest Basketball and National PrepHoops rated Brewer as one of the top-5 players in the state.

"Candice is blessed with so much athleticism. But the biggest challenge for all of our freshmen is the consistency of playing at this level day-in and day-out," said McConnell-Miller. "She's the quickest player on the team and has very good skills on the perimeter and an overall court awareness."

The Schedule
The Hurricane should benefit from a very competitive but favorable schedule. Tulsa will play 13 home games at the Reynolds Center, three games at the Mabee Center on the campus of Oral Roberts, just minutes south of the TU campus and one game less than two hours from Tulsa.

"We have a very competitive schedule this season. Although we lost some great players to graduation and only have two returning starters, our newcomers bring a lot of energy to the team.

"The Bertha Teague Classic is a great in-state rivalry for OU, OSU, ORU and TU because it features the best teams, players and coaches in the state of Oklahoma. Our first game against Oklahoma should give us an indication of where we are and where we need to be," McConnell-Miller said.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the 2000-01 schedule is the fact that The University of Tulsa will serve as the host site for the 2001 WAC Tournament.

"Hosting the WAC Tournament is a great advantage for us because our players will be able to play on their home court. Our kids love playing in front of our fans and we expect to win on our home floor. I think hosting the conference tournament is great for not only city of Tulsa, but the state of Oklahoma," McConnell-Miller said.

Tulsa will battle seven postseason teams from a year ago, including four NCAA Tournament participants and three WNIT squads.

The NCAA squads are Oklahoma, who reached the NCAA "Sweet Sixteen", San Diego and WAC foes Rice and SMU. The WNIT teams consist of Arkansas, Colorado State and WAC rival Hawai`i.

Tulsa's non-conference home dates feature New Orleans, Western Michigan, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Duquesne and UMKC. The Hurricane will face a tough non-conference slate on the road against Creighton, Colorado State, San Diego, Oral Roberts and Arkansas. TU will square off against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at the Mabee Center in the Bertha Teague Classic.

Tulsa will play three opponents for the first time in 2000-01 including Western Michigan, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and new WAC member Nevada.

The Hurricane will look to a challenging non-conference schedule to prepare it for the always-tough WAC slate. After facing four 2000 postseason teams during non-conference action, Tulsa opens the 2001 league tilt on the road against defending WAC Tournament Champion Rice.

"I think Rice, SMU and Hawai`i are playing at their own level. All three schools, especially Rice and SMU, have moved the WAC in a very positive direction. Each school has had great success in recent years and will continue to succeed. But, I do think Tulsa, Fresno State and TCU are very up-and-coming teams that will contend for the WAC title.

"The WAC has great coaches and that makes the conference not only better, but very competitive as well."

What to Expect
As TU heads into its second season under McConnell-Miller, the biggest obstacle facing the team will be to replace a majority of the scoring vacated by TU's four seniors. Pittman, Lila Osceola, Goyne and Stagner accounted for 1,087 of the 1,819 total points scored.

So, not only will it be critical for Wagner and Morrow to pick up where they left off last season, but Tulsa's versatile newcomers will be looked upon to provide scoring as well.

TU will also need to maintain a homecourt advantage. Since moving into the Reynolds Center in January 1999, Tulsa is 13-7 overall and 10-4 in WAC games.

In order for the Hurricane to contend for the 2001 WAC title, Tulsa's newcomers will have to make an immediate impact. TU will have to continue to play well at home and come up with some big wins on the road. Tulsa does have two three-game homestands during the conference portion of the season, but must play three straight games on the road in January at TCU, Hawai`i and San Jose State, and again in February at UTEP, Fresno State and Nevada.

If TU can improve on its 3-4 WAC road record from a year ago, the Hurricane could be sitting near the top of the WAC standings when it comes time to host the tournament in the friendly confines of the Reynolds Center in March.

The Hurricane returns to the court for the 2000-01 season with high expectations and will look to build on last season's record-setting performances.

"Last year, everything was new and exciting," McConnell-Miller said. " This season is a different type of excitement. We seem to have more of a business-type attitude. We didn't have a lot of depth a year ago. This season, we might play eight or nine players. We can play quick players in an up-tempo game or put in some of our taller players and go with a big lineup.

"With the success we had last season, I think we set a solid foundation, and now its time to build on that success and take our program to another level," McConnell-Miller added.