EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Roster depth is one of the major reasons why SIUE women's basketball Head Coach Paula Buscher has high hopes for the Cougars this season.
Cougar fans will get their first opportunity to see the 2016-17 Cougars who open exhibition play Sunday at the Vadalabene Center against Lindenwood at 2 p.m. SIUE's first three regular season contests are on the road at South Dakota (Nov. 11), South Dakota State (Nov. 13) and Saint Louis (Nov. 17).
The season home opener is Nov. 23 against SIU Carbondale. To get through the season which culminates with the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament next March in Nashville, Tennessee, the Cougars will rely on chemistry and depth.
"One of the biggest keys on this year's team is our depth," said Buscher. "We are deeper in several positions, which will allow us to have stronger substitutions as well as keep our level of intensity up throughout the game and throughout the season."
The team's top returning scorer is junior Donshel Beck (St. Louis, Missouri), who doubled her offensive output from her freshman season to her sophomore season. She averaged 11.7 points and a team-leading 7.7 rebounds per contest.
"Donshel has really improved her perimeter skills," said Buscher. "She has the ability to play in the post as well as on the perimeter. She has started the season where she ended last season, which is a huge positive for us."
The 5-foot, 9-inch guard had seven double-doubles last season and has been the team's top offensive weapon in each of the last two OVC Tournaments.
"Donshel plays the game the right way with a high level of intensity and passion. Her motor is always running," added Buscher.
Beck is but one piece of a talented junior class that includes the return of Micah Jones (Cowden, Illinois), who was injured in last season's exhibition game. She sat out last season and enters this year with a career 9.8 scoring average.
"I thought it might take Micah some time to adjust from being out this past year, but she has jumped right into practice and has been very active. She has the ability to find a way to score. " said Buscher.
Gwen Adams (Ferguson, Missouri) scored in double figures 17 times last season, including 18 points in a win over defending OVC champion Belmont.
"Gwen is a great high post passer with a high basketball IQ," said Buscher. "One of the reasons she is so tough to guard is her ability to be a force in the low post and also being able to step out and hit the three."
Sidney Smith (Carterville, Illinois) tied the single-game record for three-pointers in a game and now has 118 career three-pointers, which is seventh all-time at SIUE.
"She is back in full stride after dealing with some injuries last season," said Buscher. "In her first two years she was looked at as just a shooter, but she has added more facets to her game. Look for her to be more of a complete player as she is stepping up in different ways on both the offensive and defensive end."
Lauren White (Edwardsville, Illinois) has improved her skills from last season, noted Buscher, when she averaged 6.4 points per game.
"Lauren was really playing well last season before she was set back with a broken bone in her hand. She has worked extremely hard over the summer on her outside shot, and it shows. She is a great defender with her speed and quickness. She will play both the point and off guard positions for us this," said Buscher.
Elina Berzina (Riga, Latvia), a 5-10 transfer junior from Independence Community College, is a 5-10 guard who can play several positions.
"She is a solid, bigger guard who can play multiple positions. She will play on the perimeter but has the ability to go inside if needed. She has solid three-point range and is quick off the dribble. Elina is also a tough defender who can guard anyone from the point to the post," said Buscher.
With a large junior class, the Cougars have just one senior, and this is her first season with women's basketball. Cassidy Sherman (Algonquin, Illinois) played four seasons with SIUE women's soccer. She helped the Cougars to a conference regular season and tournament title in 2014, leading SIUE to its first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance in women's soccer.
"The chemistry on a basketball team is so important," said Buscher. "It's probably as important for our sport as other sports because the length of our season. We've got a great group of young people on this team who respect Cassidy's work ethic and her selfless attitude.
"She has already won a conference championship in soccer so we look to her for a lot of insight and leadership," added Buscher. "She is going to do all of the little things that help make a team successful."
SIUE's sophomore class begins with newcomer Nakiah Bell (St. Louis, Missouri), who transferred into SIUE last season from Iowa State. The 5-5 guard will compete for a starting position.
"She is a true point guard who will lead us on the offensive end," said Buscher. "She is the pass-first type of player with great vision. She has the ability to make others around her better. Nakiah has great range and will be able to force opponents to play honest or she will knockdown a lot of shots.
Sophomore post player Sydney Bauman (Glen Ellyn, Illinois) looks to improve from a year ago. Confident and comfortable are the words Buscher used to describe the 6-3 center this season.
"She has grown from her freshman year to her sophomore year," said Buscher. "She has taken some great strides and is in much better physical condition and is playing with more confidence. She has always enjoyed being physical in the post but is learning when to be a finesse player and when to be power player."
Amri Wilder (Montgomery, Illinois) appeared in 26 games as a freshman last season and averaged 2.5 points per game. Buscher said Wilder also has shown improvement and expects her to make a sizeable contribution on offense and defense.
SIUE's freshman class not only adds to the depth but also the balance. Maddy Greeling (Brighton, Illinois) has shown the ability to hit the three-pointer with a blue-collar style of play. Cloe Churchill (Canton, Illinois), a 5-9 guard, has the ability to score and help open things up from the outside. Dearria Watson (Salem, Illinois), a 6-1 center, gives the Cougars another athletic post option.
From Buscher's perspective, the Cougars have improved in several areas not only because the team has more experience. It also has more options.
"We have more three-point shooters than in the past," said Buscher. "We have more players who can penetrate the lane and get to the basket. We're in a great position with our inside game because they are a year older and know what to expect. They have had quite a bit of playing time over the past couple of seasons and this is their time to step up and be difference makers.
Buscher's challenge will be to find the right mix of players on the floor and give the Cougars their best opportunity to make a deep run come March.
"We'll be hard to defend and harder to scout because we can score from multiple positions," said Buscher. "We have a tough non conference schedule to help prepare us for OVC play. This team will have to be resilient as I am sure we will have some ups and downs but as we continue to grow, we will put ourselves in a good position come March."