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Saint Joseph's women embracing youth movement with success

12/11/2021, 6:30pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Cindy Griffin’s plan to turn around her Saint Joseph’s program after a rough start was simple.

First, bench your leading scorer, who also happens to be one of your most experienced players. Then put three freshmen into the starting lineup, even though some had barely been playing over the opening stretch of the season. Step three: win a bunch of games.

Easy, right?

The Hawks went four weeks without a win following a season-opening victory, failing to shoot 40% from the floor in five straight, a lifeless offense struggling to break 50 points game after game. After 20 years running the St. Joe’s women’s program, Griffin’s been around long enough to know when something needs shaking up.

Laila Fair (12) and Saint Joseph's have won three in a row with freshmen playing a major part. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The veterans weren’t getting it done. So she turned to her youngsters.

“We were trying to bring (the freshmen) along, and then it was like okay, no, we’ve got to just put them in there, we haven’t tried that yet,” Griffin said. “Let’s try that, throw them into the fire.”

Saturday’s 73-63 win over Temple was the third in a row for St. Joe’s (4-6, 2-1 Big 5), which has indeed embraced its youth movement to help turn things around. 

The Hawks opened the season with freshman Talya Brugler (Nazareth Area, Pa.) in the starting lineup, with MacKenzie Smith (King’s-Edgehill, N.S.) playing significant bench minutes, while Julia Nystrom Ik Eos Lund, Swe.) and Laila Fair (Stuart Country Day, N.J.) were a little deeper in the rotation.

By the time St. Joe’s made it down to Katy, Tex. for a three-game road trip (Nov. 26-28), things were starting to change. Griffin started tinkering with the lineup, removing junior guard Kaliah Henderson — the team’s leading scorer last year — from the starting lineup and starting to mix and match; 10 different players have already started a game this season for the Hawks. 

And it was difficult for her to miss that her freshmen had a propensity for being productive: Smith already had multiple games with multiple 3-pointers made, and was hitting above 50% from deep early on; Nystrom had already played 20-plus minutes in multiple games, with multiple assists in each of her first five outings; Fair had scored six points in 10 minutes against UMES (3-3 FG) and then scored 12 in 22 minutes against Old Dominion (5-7 FG) in the Hawks’ first game in the Lone Star State. 

Mackenzie Smith (above) has started four games this season for the Hawks, reaching double figures three times. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“The numbers, when they came in the game, were very glaring,” Griffin said. “You have Laila shooting 71%, so what am I, stupid, for not playing her?”

It was on Dec. 4 that Fair and Smith entered the starting lineup for the first time, and it worked; Fair scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds in a 52-49 win over Yale. 

Fair really busted out the next game, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in an 83-70 win at Penn. The 6-2 post — whose father, Lamar Fair, was a first-team all-PSAC selection at Cheyney in 1990-91 — wasn’t quite as productive against Temple’s terrific frontcourt of Mia Davis and Alexa Williamson, but she grabbed seven boards and come up with two steals and two assists along with four points in 26 minutes of work. 

“I don’t really care how much I score,” she said. “I just care, if I’m in the paint and I get the ball, I want to finish it for my teammates, so they can trust me.”

“Laila’s fierce, man,” Smith said. “That girl’s tough. She can catch any pass, anything that’s thrown at her, she’s grabbing rebounds and putting them back up. She’s playing awesome.”

Smith, a 5-11 wing guard, is averaging 7.1 ppg after scoring 12 points in Saturday’s win, which she started with a personal 11-2 run. She’s one of just two Hawks who have played in all 10 games, along with Brugler (6.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg); they each have started four games. Nystrom (2.6 ppg) has started the most games out of the freshmen (six), and though she hasn’t contributed as much in the scoring column, her 21.4 mpg are right up there with the rest of her classmates.

“I think we all came in with the mindset that we just want to get better, and we did that,” Smith said. “Throughout practices, our teammates push us, we push them, it’s a back and forth. It’s really done well for us.”

The Hawks’ hot play of late hasn’t all been on the underclassmen: Katie Jekot, St. Joe’s point guard, 3-point specialist and fifth-year senior, has been playing the best hoops of her career. She led the way with a career-high 25 points against Temple (5-4, 1-1), going 5-of-9 from deep, along with six rebounds, five assists, and six steals. 

That followed up on a 20-point effort against Penn where she also hit five 3-pointers; those two outings made her the team’s new leading scorer on the season (11.4 ppg.)

“We’re feeling great, we have a lot of momentum right now, we’re playing really well together,” she said, “so it’s just a really good feeling.”

The Temple win saw St. Joe’s shoot a season-high 48.1% overall (26-of-45) and 52.9% (9-of-17) from 3-point range, helped out by sophomore Emma Boslet’s career-high nine points on 3-3 3PT shooting; Lovin Marsicano also added nine points, tying her season high, and St. Joe’s had 20 assists on 26 buckets. 

The Hawks now have 10 days off before they host SEC opponent Vanderbilt on Dec. 21, with another week after that before the Hawk Classic, when they’ll play North Alabama (Dec. 28) and then either Harvard or Norfolk State. 

Atlantic 10 play, beginning with a New Years’ Day trip to St. Bonaventure, looms immediately afterwards.

“Right now,” Griffin said, “it’s about having a little bit of momentum [as] they go into finals, and now let’s see what we can do post-finals.”

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