Last week at Montreat’s McAlister Gym, a triple-overtime win over conference rival Point University perfectly illustrated what this year’s Cavaliers women’s basketball team has that last year’s didn’t: depth.
The 2017-18 squad went 7-22 while relying on a core of starters and a bench that at times was two players deep. The team always played hard until the final buzzer, but opponents inevitably pulled away late from the Cavaliers in the game’s final quarter.
Second-year head coach Tim Lewis, who assumed leadership of Montreat halfway through last year’s season, has resolved that problem. Although at 2-3 the squad’s record isn’t eye-popping, watching them play the Skyhawks made readily apparent how improved they are.
For starters, Lewis has created a Cavaliers’ junior varsity team, and expanded the total number of the varsity and junior varsity squads to 25 members through his recruiting efforts, along with those of second year assistant Dasha Sharova. Several new players at the varsity level have proven immediate contributors.
One is sophomore Caleigh Raby, a transfer from Lenoir-Rhyne who is second on the team behind senior Jala Daniels in scoring. “She can shoot. She had 17 points tonight and also hit a couple of free throws down the stretch,” said Lewis. On one second half transition basket, Raby caught a fingertip pass in full-stride, squared up to the basket in mid-air, and laid in a key bucket in a tight game.
Guard Aliyah Thomas, a fellow transfer, had a presence all over the court against Point, and contributed significant minutes at point guard. Her speed is immediately evident.
“She gets to the rim, and by doing that she can create opportunities for her teammates,” said Lewis.
The head coach, who is a former Cavalier standout and also a former assistant for the men’s team, used Thomas to illustrate the ‘next play’ approach that he is instilling to help his team maintain a consistent effort. “She fought through a couple of early turnovers and came back. We want to have a ‘next play’ mentality as a team. If something doesn’t go right on the first play, “Alright, onto the next play’ and you roll,” said Lewis.
Freshman Taylor Cullen is also projected to give Montreat quality minutes in the backcourt this year.
Lewis’s approach is firmly founded in his Christian faith, and he frequently takes the opportunity to instill empathy and compassion in his players as part of shaping his student-athletes.
Earlier this season the team made two trips to an Asheville homeless shelter. Part of the effort was to help his players realize that “homeless” does not describe a single entity but is instead comprised of a series of diverse individuals, each with a story.
“For two Saturdays we served breakfast and gave out clothes. They saw girls their age,” said Lewis. “There was one young lady with a baby in her arms. Arianna [Williams] and Jala were talking to her. She was 21. That’s how old they are,” said Lewis. “Afterward I’ll ask them “What was their story? What was their facial expression? Tell me about a family you saw today.
“They’re more than basketball players," he continued. "They’re young ladies and I want them to have a sense of who they are beyond basketball.”
Daniels is again leading the team in scoring this year, averaging nearly 17 points per outing. Last year the 5’7” forward had to post low more often than she might have liked, but there were few alternatives.
This year she can find the open space and open shot out away from the basket as well as in tight.
“It’s good to have some players around her,” said Lewis.
Williams is another returnee benefiting from a larger supporting cast. After manning the point much of last season, she has moved comfortably over to a shooting guard role.
Against the Skyhawks she had 14 points and narrowly missed a double-double when she pulled down nine rebounds.
“The last two years, Arianna had to play a lot of point guard. She’s athletic, has a good basketball IQ, and I think her not having to play as much point this year has freed her up to capitalize on her strengths and athleticism,” said Lewis.
Basketball IQ is a skill that the Cavaliers did have last year, and return this year. Seniors Darah DeWalt and Katie Dillon are among the returnees who are effectively coaches on the court and in turn can help direct younger players.
In 2016-17, DeWalt led Montreat in scoring but was sidelined last year due to multiple injuries. The Cavs’ head coach looks to her for composure that is readily evident in conversing with the senior.
“He depends on us a lot to get everybody together, and to keep composure,” said DeWalt.
She added that the coach, and the team, didn’t panic when they started out 0-2 in-conference this year.
“Even though we lost the last two games, he said: ‘Hey, we did his better than we did last week. We’re improving and we’ll get the W’s, they’ll come,'" DeWalt said.
The senior is healthy, and could be a significant factor obscured to opponents by not playing last.
“It’s been a struggle,” said DeWalt of her work to get healthy again. “I’ve had to do a lot of rehab, but I feel really good about where I am.”
Dillon, an outside shooting threat and defensive standout who is also a varsity tennis player, was one of a handful of Cavaliers who seldom left the court last season.
Like her fellow returners, the internal pressure to over-perform has been alleviated this season.
“It’s been a lot easier when I’m out there knowing that you have people to help you out and it can be anybody’s night. It’s just great to have,” said Dillon.