By Chris Cullum
Coming into this season, VCU’s women’s basketball team was looking at what could only be described as a fresh start. Five players, who had accounted for nearly half of the scoring last year, were departing the program, leaving this year’s squad with just two upperclassmen. A whole new coaching staff was introduced. Growing pains were sure to follow.
Enter Adaeze Alaeze. The junior from Baltimore has seen a spike in her numbers this season as one of the elder statesmen of the squad. This year she’s playing over 10 minutes per game more than she did last season, and her scoring and rebounding numbers have nearly doubled.
The heavier workload was something Alaeze expected to see this season, acknowledging that with a young team, everyone had to step up in different ways. Also, with a new coaching staff came clean slates, and it’s clear that she’s made the most out of the situation.
“I think Coach would agree that most of the time I lead by example,” she said. “In practice I’m always going hard. It was kind of a given to set an example, since it’s my third year here.”
Early in the season, with the Rams in the midst of a six-game road trip, those growing pains made an appearance. However, despite a 2-4 record on the trip, VCU (14-9, 5-5 A-10) rattled off eight wins in its next 10 games. It could be an arbitrary end point, or it could have signified the point when a new coaching staff and a young roster found its groove. Alaeze sits squarely in the latter camp.
“I think it was a good time to see what we’re actually capable of,” said Alaeze, who is the Rams’ second-leading scorer this season at 10.9 points per game. “To be on the road for so long and wearing our bodies out, it was a good test to see how strong we can really be.
“That was a time when we really ironed all of our bumps out and meshed together and got used to our new offense and how they [new head coach Beth O’Boyle and her staff] wanted us to play.”
But there’s another reason that Alaeze feels so comfortable on this team, a reason that has nothing to do with how many minutes she gets or how many points she scores.
“Coming from a family where I was the youngest, it’s always good to have a lot of family attributes,” Alaeze said. “I consider the team my sisters. That’s helped a lot too, having someone to talk to and to push you and tell you when you’re messing up.”
As the youngest sibling of an athletic family –- her two brothers play Division I football -– Alaeze grew up in a loving, but competitive, atmosphere. Being the youngest meant that when it came time to go outside and play, it was by her brothers’ rules. Competing against two football-playing older brothers can be a great way to mold oneself into a better athlete, something she recognizes now.
“I definitely think so,” Alaeze said when asked if growing up playing sports against her brothers had a positive impact on her development. “I know if you asked my brothers they would say that everything I am is because of them. They always pushed me, even when I was really small; they never took it easy on me at any point.”
Back in late December, Alaeze was able to play in front of her family when the Rams traveled to Baltimore to face Coppin State.
“It was great, it felt so good to be back home again,” she said with a big smile on her face. “All I heard was my brother in the crowd, and after the game having everyone there was one of the best feelings for me.”
Being a part of a close-knit group is something that Alaeze puts a lot of importance in. When she was 13 and had to choose between running track and playing basketball, she chose hoops because track was too much of an individual sport. When she was being recruited out of high school to play basketball, that feeling of closeness was really important to her.
When Alaeze, a three-star high school prospect, took her recruiting visits, one school stood out in a way that really made things click.
“I went on a lot of visits, but the one here was great,” she said. “I just got this feeling that they were genuinely nice. Sometimes on a visit they’re only nice to the recruit because they have to be, but on my visit here they were so nice they actually forgot I was a recruit.”
That visit, she said, opened her eyes to the kind of community that existed within the VCU program. Seeing as she considers her teammates her sisters, that clearly hasn’t gone away.
“We’ve been through so much together,” Alaeze said of her team. “This is the kind of team that you can be honest with each other at all times, you can say what you have to say because you know these are your girls and we all have each other’s best interests at heart. You can go at it on the court and say what you need to say, but as soon as you get off the court you’re as good as new. I feel like we do a good job of keeping each other in check.”
Which brings us to the present, where the team’s chemistry has reached the point where the guards know where each player is going to be, and whoever is posting up knows who likes to make that backdoor cut or who likes to spot up in the corner. She knows that this team isn’t done improving yet, that they still have areas where they can get better. But seeing what they’ve done already, and knowing that they’ll return next season with a roster full of juniors and another year of experience under their belts, it’s hard not to get excited.
By the time she was done gushing about her team, Alaeze’s smile had only gotten bigger.