RICHMOND, Va. – Marlene Stollings rebranded her VCU Women’s Basketball program over the summer. Although she toyed with the term “High Octane” at times during her first year as VCU coach, she christened her program “The Fury”, a name which draws from same kinetic roots as Shaka Smart’s “Havoc”.
While The Fury has some undeniable marketing panache, the makeover appears to have been more than cosmetic.
With a convincing 85-64 victory over Manhattan Wednesday afternoon, Stollings, the Rams and Fury moved to 9-1 this season. It’s just the third 9-1 start in school history, and VCU’s current eight-game winning streak is the second-best for the program. Last season, Stollings’ first at the helm of the VCU program, the Rams finished 11-19.
Like Havoc, Fury equates to high-energy basketball. Not only do the Rams pressure the ball to the tune of 23 turnovers per game – they forced 25 Wednesday – but Stollings’ blender offense is perpetually set on liquify. The Rams attack the lane and kick out for 3-pointers with abandon. In ten games this year, the Rams are averaging 80.8 points and 27 three-point attempts per game. Last season, VCU averaged just 59.1 points per game and a little more than 15 three-point tries.
“I don’t think there are a lot of comparisons [to last year]. We’re a lot more talented and deeper at every position. I think that we’re a completely different looking team than we were last year, so I think that we’re just focused on what we have now and going forward and transitioning and moving the program to a top 25 program,” Stollings said after Wednesday’s win.
Indeed, this is a much different team than last year. There are seven first-year players on VCU’s roster, including freshmen Keira Robinson (14 points, 8 assists), Isis Thorpe (8 points, 4 rebounds), Camille Calhoun (2 points, 3 rebounds), Ashlee Mitchell (2 points, 2 assists) and Monnazjea Finney-Smith (9 points), who played major minutes for VCU in Wednesday’s win. All five of those players averages at least 14 minutes a game this year for the Rams, and Robinson, Calhoun and Thorpe all started Wednesday.
Stollings’ first freshman class at VCU hasn’t taken long to pay off. The group was ranked 38th nationally, and has complimented returners like Robyn Parks, Zakia Williams, Jessica Pellechio and Adaeze Alaeze deftly.
In the middle of the Rams resurgence, however, is the emerging star, Parks. The Waldorf, Md. native pumped in 29 points against Manhattan, her second straight game with that many, and is averaging 22.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this season. Parks led the Atlantic 10 Conference in scoring a year ago (18.7 ppg), but appears to have taken her game to another level.
Despite VCU’s hot start, Parks says she’s trying to keep everything in perspective.
“Winning is always fun, so I’m happy that we’re winning, but I don’t want us to just get complacent with just being 9-1 now,” the 6-foot forward said. “I want us to keep winning, and I feel like every game we win our confidence goes higher and higher, so I feel like the sky is the limit at this point.”
On Wednesday, VCU was given a reminder of why Parks is weary of celebrating a third of the way into the season. The Jaspers (1-7) came out firing, and hit 5-of-7 three-pointers on the way to a 27-15 advantage midway through the first half. But eventually, VCU steadied itself and closed the half on a 12-0 blitz and took a 40-33 lead into the lockerroom. Manhattan was 2-of-18 from three the rest of the day and never seriously threatened again.
“We were late getting there in the first half,” Stollings said of Manhattan’s early sharpshooting. “Those looks were wide open. And again, the adjustment that we made was to increase our defensive energy and effort. It wasn’t that our coverage s were really off, we were just late getting there, so our movement picked up. We did back our zone up slightly, which helped a little bit with that, but for the most part we just picked up our energy level.”
With a name like Fury, it’s not really a surprise that managing energy is paramount to success. Once in proper attack mode, the Rams did defensively much as they have for the bulk of this eight-game winning streak, turning turnovers into easy buckets. VCU outscored the Jaspers 36-11 off turnovers. With numbers like that, there’s no reason VCU’s Fury-ous start can’t continue.
“I think more internally we’re learning that we could be a very good basketball team,” Stollings said. “If we play hard every time, I think the sky is the limit in what this team can do. With seniors like Parks and her having an opportunity to go out by possibly hanging a banner and winning a ring, things like that, those are what we’re looking for, and those are our goals, and I think that this team realizes that we can be good, but the biggest thing that they’re learning is how to bring it each and every day.”