Inexperience, Youth, Injury Plague Georgetown

By Stephen Owens Hoya Staff Writer

In a number of ways, the Georgetown women’s basketball team’s season bore close resemblance to last year’s season. The Hoyas’ 17 wins this season came within one win of last year’s mark. Their fifth place finish in the Big East was identical to their standing last season. For the second year in a row, the Hoyas boasted the Big East’s leading scorer in junior guard Katie Smrcka-Duffy. And like last year, their season came to a premature close with a first round loss in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

In other ways, however, the two seasons were quite different. Last season, for instance, the Hoyas’ roster was rich with veteran leadership and carried only a single freshman. The veteran leadership of a year ago included four seniors, three of whom started for the Hoyas and were among the team’s top four scorers.

Inexperience, Injury and Ineligibility

This season, the Hoyas traded their experience for youth, adding five freshmen to their roster, while center Danielle Hurley, whose career up to that point had been marred by injury, served as the team’s only senior. Besides Smrcka-Duffy, sophomore Lesley Walker was the only other player who averaged more than 15 minutes of playing time per game last season. Smrcka-Duffy and Walker were likewise the only returning Hoyas who averaged more than four points per game last season.

Despite their glaring inexperience, veteran Head Coach Pat Knapp and his Hoyas had lofty goals for their season, which included a top-four finish in the Big East and their second trip to the NCAAs in team history.

Not only were the Hoyas crippled by inexperience this season but also by injury and ineligibility. During the preseason, the Hoyas suffered the loss of one of their most highly touted freshman recruits, Joi Irby, who missed the entire season due to a back injury.

Six-foot-three sophomore forward Zsuzsanna Horvath, a transfer from Central Florida Community College who averaged over seven points and seven rebounds a game, was forced to sit out the entire season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Six-foot-five senior center Hurley, after averaging over 11 points and seven rebounds a game over the course of the first seven games, missed the next four games due to a devastating leg injury and was never the same even after she returned.

The injury forced Knapp to replace an experienced four-year veteran with his most inexperienced player of all, 6-foot-10 freshman Suzy Bendegue.

Knapp commented on the dilemma Hurley’s injury brought to his club:

“Right in mid-season, you have to replace a senior who’s going well with a freshman whose basketball education is basically in her freshman or sophomore year of high school equivalency.”

Injuries have plagued Hurley throughout her career at Georgetown. She seems to always play at her best right before the injury and, even when cleared to play, never seems to fully recover.

“Every time [an injury] happened, she never made it back to the same level,” Knapp said. “It was sad to see the physical ins and outs of her career.”

Freshman forward Santia Jackson, who garnered Big East Rookie of the Week accolades early in the season, missed a stretch of five conference games due to injury, as well.

Also ridden with injury throughout the season was Smrcka-Duffy, though one certainly wouldn’t know it by reading the numbers she put up throughout the season or even watching her play. Smrcka-Duffy stubbornly battled through excruciating back pain throughout the entire season, leading her team in rebounds, assists and free-throw shooting, as well as leading the entire Big East in scoring.

Twice, the pain was so severe, she had no choice but to miss the game. The first time, her teammates managed without her, albeit barely, using a 17-0 run late in the second half to edge St. John’s by six points.

The second instance, however, couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the Hoyas. Playing without Smrcka-Duffy against Maryland in the first round of the WNIT, the Hoyas were held to their lowest point total of the year, with no one able to step up and fill the void left by their leading scorer’s absence.

“Nobody wants to get chosen for a postseason tournament without your key player,” Knapp said.

Smrcka-Duffy’s back problems escalated during the final month of the season. Although she played both games of the Big East tournament and averaged 21 points each game, her status for the quarterfinal game against Boston College was uncertain until literally minutes before the game.

While Smrcka-Duffy played admirably against the Eagles, scoring 20 points and grabbing five rebounds in a losing effort, the decision to let her play may have cost her the ability to play in the WNIT.

“Her body’s beat up,” Knapp said following the season. “It hit the max this last month.”

Smrcka-Duffy to WNBA?

And now, Smrcka Duffy may have donned her Georgetown uniform for the final time as she is in the process of deciding whether or not to declare herself eligible for next month’s WNBA draft.

While Knapp would love to have Smrcka-Duffy stay one more year, he admits Smrcka-Duffy “has some good arguments to [become eligible for the WNBA draft].”

Because Smrcka-Duffy sat out a year due to NCAA transfer rules during the 1997-98 season, she will be among this spring’s graduating class. In addition, four expansion teams are entering the WNBA next season, creating four additional first round draft choices, one of which Smrcka-Duffy has a good chance of receiving.

Another factor which contributes towards the possibility of Smrcka-Duffy being selected in the first round of the draft is that the best European players will miss next season due to this summer’s Olympic games to be held in Sydney, Australia.

Health and injury concerns also may contribute to Smrcka-Duffy’s decision to enter the draft. She has undergone four surgeries in the last five years and is now ridden with additional back problems. She may want to enter the WNBA before her injuries worsen.

On the other hand, Knapp felt his star guard had good reason to stay, as well.

“[If she stays], she can finish her career here with a number of records,” Knapp said.

Bouncing Back

Ultimately, it was the combination of injury and inexperience that kept the Hoyas from collecting enough wins to earn a bid to the NCAAs.

“There were a couple segments of the year that could have changed everything for us,” Knapp said. “For instance, we could have won the first two games of the year easily.”

The Hoyas’ first two games of the year were at the Minnesota Tournament, where the Hoyas lost to Fresno State and Minnesota by a combined four points. Above all, the losses severely damaged the Hoyas’ RPI rating throughout the season because of the especially low RPI rankings of both Fresno State and Minnesota, which were 225 and 170, respectively.

The Hoyas held large second half leads in both games but folded during crunch time.

“There were key stretches in both games where we didn’t come through,” Knapp said. “We were a stop and a shot away from winning both games.”

Despite finding themselves in a deep hole just two games into the season, the Hoyas bounced back, winning seven out of their next eight games, before losing four in a row to Duke, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Rutgers, each of which was eventually chosen as either No.1 or No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

Yet after the Hoyas’ most difficult segment of their schedule, they bounced back yet again, winning four in row against Florida International, Miami, St. John’s and West Virginia.

“To win four in a row was a very strong statement by this team,” Knapp said, “because that would have been a perfect time to say, ‘Woe is me’. We did not.”

Late in the season, the Hoyas suffered two disheartening away losses to Syracuse and Pittsburgh but managed to bounce back with a pair of wins after each loss.

The season ended on a low note, however, with a decisive defeat in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament to Boston College, which was followed up by a humiliating loss to Maryland in the WNIT.

“We don’t get to bounce back from that, that’s the disappointing thing . Our season’s over,” Knapp said.

While Knapp admits the expectations for this season were higher, he reflected on many aspects of the season which pleased him.

“When you lump everything together, we had a good year.”

A Look Ahead

Pending Smrcka-Duffy’s decision of whether or not to enter the WNBA draft, the Hoyas lose only one or two players to graduation. Filling the void will be forward rising sophomores Horvath and Irby, as well as rising freshman Rebecca Bronson, who has already signed a letter of intent with Georgetown’s program.

“I think we have three talented people that we’ll be adding to a nucleus that gained winning experience in 1999-2000,” Knapp said of next season’s additions.

Next year’s seniors Nathalie Bourdereau, Dani Ilic and Porshia Jones, along with the rising juniors Walker and Jewel Snowden, all gained game-time experience this season and will provide senior leadership for their teammates.

Next season’s returning sophomores, Bendengue, Jackson, Nok Duany and Shawntese Charles, all with a year of collegiate ball under their belts, will look to further progress into big-time playmakers for the Hoyas as well.

The influx of new talent along with returning leadership leaves Knapp optimistic about the 2000-2001 season.

“There’s great hope and great optimism for next season. We’ll be going to our third postseason tournament in a row, and we expect it to be the NCAAs,” Knapp said.

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