by Liaudwin Seaberry Jr. —
More than 23 years have passed since the University of Memphis women’s basketball team last participated in NCAA tournament action.
As champions of Conference USA and under the tutelage of coaching legend Joye Lee-McNelis, the Tigers made their last appearance in the “Big Dance” at the conclusion of the 1997-98 season.
With the squad now under the guidance of first-year head coach Katrina Merriweather and her staff, the Tigers seek to become the antithesis of a historically mediocre program.
Memphis currently sports a 9-2 record heading into its first game this season within American Athletic Conference (AAC) competition, squaring off Wednesday (Jan. 5) against the University of Tulsa, which is 10-1.
The Tigers’ losses were a 5-point setback at the hands of Little Rock and a defeat against Alabama.
With the team sporting its best record through 11 games in years, there’s no reason for this Tiger squad to not be in the thick of the NCAA tournament discussion by the end of conference play in March.
Merriweather and company slowly molded this group of players, led by seniors Jamirah Shutes, Alana Davis and Tyler Frierson, into a defensive-minded squad that has yielded only 57.5 points per contest.
Additionally, the Tigers have held opponents to just 36 percent of their field goal attempts, further showing their relentless defense.
Merriweather is serious when it comes to rebounding and defense. She understands that while offense may come or go throughout the course of a game, defense and rebounding remain the team’s building blocks.
“If you don’t play defense or rebound, then you won’t play!!!” Merriweather yelled during a practice earlier in the season.
She means it as well. While last year’s squad struggled under former head coach Melissa McFerrin, the 2021-22 edition of this Tiger group has meshed well defensively.
And that goes well with players showing the ability to put the ball in the basket.
Shutes has bounced back from a severe injury that sidelined her for the majority of last season. She leads the team in scoring with 12.7 points per game, while receiving help from junior sharpshooter Madison Griggs, who has contributed six points per contest so far.
“Both Maddie and Jamirah know that they have the green light to score, and I am happy that Jamirah has found her way while coming back from an injury …,” Merriweather said after Memphis’s victory over Florida A&M on Nov. 20.
Fifth-year post players Frierson and Davis provide sparks on the offensive end of the floor as well, with each scoring around seven points a game.
Despite both players featured at the center position, Frierson tends to be more of a back-to-the-basket kind of player, while Davis possesses the ability to knock down a long jump shot, or even the occasional three-point shot.
Sophomore guards Emani Jefferson and Maya Stovall supply pressure on opposing guards. Jefferson’s 20 steals lead the team and her 8.3 points per game is good for second on the team behind Shutes.
The secret, however, to the success behind this upstart team lies in its depth.
Merriweather and her staff employ a 12-to 14-player rotation that has remained consistent throughout the season.
The strategy provides players with the opportunity to display their talents.
First-year guard Makaiya Brooks averages around one made three-pointer per contest, and she converted on a career-high four triples in the Tigers’ victory against Nicholls State on Dec. 20.
Fellow newbies, forwards Hannah Riddick and Aliyah Green, have established themselves as hustle players, embracing the two things Merriweather desires most – rebounding and defense.
Sophomore Coriah Beck, who specializes on offense, summed up the energy of last year’s squad and coaching staff to this year’s unit.
“I feel that the coaching staff allows us to learn from our mistakes and the ability to play our way through tough stretches,” Beck said.
“It’s sort of a refreshing thing from last season, and it allows everyone to play with more freedom knowing that you aren’t going to come out of the game if you make one mistake.”
Picked to finish last in the AAC heading into the season, the Tigers now sit in a position to not make some noise in the conference.
And if they make enough of it, they could reach a level of play not seen by the program in almost a quarter of a century.