For the UIW Women’s Basketball team, this past season was all about making program history.
In their first season under head coach Jeff Dow, the Cardinals posted their best overall record (14-15) since bumping up to Division I play in 2013, finished 10-10 against Southland Conference opponents and qualified for their first conference tournament. Senior Imani Robinson led an experienced core to new heights and was selected First-Team All-Conference, the first player in UIW history to receive that honor in Division I play.
Toughness, confidence and optimism carefully sculpted and nurtured over the previous 29 games was about to culminate in a March 12 showdown against sixth-seeded Nicholls in the opening round of the tournament. Seventh-seeded UIW had won the only previous matchup against the Colonels on a Robinson buzzer-beater back on Jan. 2.
But within two days of arriving in Katy, all hopes of a deep tournament run were dashed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We got in there Tuesday night and had an opportunity to practice Wednesday at the arena," head coach Jeff Dow said. "That night, we went out to dinner and that was the same night that the Rudy Gobert news broke. That immediately gets your attention on how that impacts sports and ultimately impacts all of us. That same night, all of our players found out that all of their classes were going to be online for the remainder of the semester. You could see the dominoes starting to fall. The next day, we literally were minutes away from getting on the bus and heading to the arena. I was in the process of putting my suit and tie on, and that’s when we got the call.”
The Southland Conference Tournament was canceled. The best Division I season in UIW women’s basketball history had come to an abrupt end. With emotional wounds still fresh, Dow had to address his team.
“That was a tough conversation," Dow recalled. "We went all the way back as far as July, when we first came together as a team. I remember telling them that I was cautiously optimistic about this season. Obviously, we knew that there were going to have to be a lot of things that would have to go right. For the most part, they did. We talked about some of the incredible wins that we had, some of the buzzer-beaters. This wasn’t a program that was thought very highly of. That was pretty clear during the preseason. When the coaches poll came out, we were picked to finish 13th -- which is last -- in the Southland Conference. We ended up being the first to ever qualify for the Southland Conference Tournament. The thing I wanted to impress upon them is that you’re always going to remember your first. Regardless of whether we were able to play in the tournament or not, we were the first to qualify.”
After reflecting on the lasting impact of this year’s group, a harsh reality soon set in. Five seniors were graduating and one of the team’s best young players, Macy Ray, was transferring to UT-Houston. As a result, six of the team’s top eight players had already played their last game for the Cardinals.
Recruiting for the future is tough enough. Trying to replace a talented senior core that helped establish a new benchmark while also navigating the difficulties that the COVID-19 pandemic presents? That’s an unprecedented dilemma.
“We’re trying to sign some players in this late period, and I’m trying to explain to them that they have to be patient with us,” Dow said. "Obviously, this is uncharted territory. You’ve just got to be able to adjust. I think we’re all in a bit of a wait-and-see mode. We might be trying to sign people who have never set foot on our campus until they do as a student, which is very unique. None of us have a crystal ball. There might not even be college football next season, and there might be a trickle-down effect on the next college basketball season. You’ve got to get creative with YouTube videos and FaceTime to try to give them as accurate a picture of UIW as you can.”
Meanwhile, Dow also has to keep his current roster engaged. Kara Speer and Starr Omozee headline the returning group, with Stevens High School graduate Destiny Jenkins leading the freshman class. Their experience will be the decisive factor for whether next year’s squad can improve upon the foundation laid during this season.
“We’ve been texting every week," Dow said. “We’re trying to keep them on task with classes, and obviously everything from a basketball perspective takes a backseat, but I’m also trying to stress that our players stay active. They were emailed a workout plan from our strength and conditioning coaches with video demonstrations, and of course they need to stay healthy and exercise good judgement. We’ve got a good core coming back, and they understand what we want to be about. We’re going to have to attack a little differently than what we did this past year.”
Dow is by no means the only head coach dealing with changes to his spring athletic schedule. In fact, the entire UIW athletics department has been communicating throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve had more conversations with the men’s basketball staff, and I bumped into Eric Morris a couple days ago, but you feel for every sport right now. Richard Duran, our interim Athletic Director has done a fantastic job of keeping everybody in the loop. Almost daily, he’s sending out emails to us about where we are as a university and what we’re doing as a department, so everybody’s been pretty connected in that regard.”
Ultimately, Dow is under a tremendous amount of pressure to handle unusual challenges while continuing to move the women’s basketball program forward. But there has been one bright spot from this pandemic: a reconnection to the past. Over the past few weeks, CBS has been rebroadcasting old National Championship games from years gone by, and Dow has had a chance to both relive some of his favorite memories and learn from basketball’s rich history.
One game in particular jumped to mind almost immediately.
“The Villanova-Georgetown game with Harold Jensen and Rollie Massimino against Patrick Ewing and the mighty Hoyas. I think I was still in high school at that point. It was like Villanova had a perfect game and knocked them off. It’s kinda cool to relive things that you remember watching as a kid. At that age, I knew I wanted to coach, but I didn’t know what it entailed. Now, you’ll see a play and think ‘I’m going to write that down.’ It can be something from 25 years ago, and it still has value.”
Another outbreak notwithstanding, there’s still seven months between now and the start of the 2020-2021 season. Time will tell if these tactics will help UIW qualify for a second straight Southland Conference Tournament. For now, Dow’s message remains simple and effective:
Stay patient and be ready to adjust.