GREENSBORO, NC - With its lone exhibition set for Saturday against Guilford College and the season opener at Virginia Tech on Nov. 14 looming, the UNC Greensboro women's basketball team might be about to turn the corner.
Despite returning just one starter from a squad that went 7-24 and finished ninth in the league at 4-14 last season, the Spartans were picked seventh in the annual preseason Southern Conference polls by both the media and the coaches. The two-spot improvement, in an expanded league that now includes Samford, is no doubt a testament to the impact the return of redshirt senior Kristen Boone will have on the UNCG program.
Boone, a two-time All-SoCon performer whose knee injury in the preseason last year cost her all but six minutes of the 2007-08 campaign, is back on the floor for the Spartans. Those who know the SoCon took notice, as she's on the preseason all-conference team for the fourth year in a row. UNCG coach Lynne Agee is certainly glad to have her back, especially considering the relative youth and inexperience of the team.
"Obviously, the return of Kristen Boone is special to us and very important to our success," Agee said. "Around her, we do, however, have a young team, an inexperienced team in terms of minutes and playing time and dealing with situations, so we're going to be a lot different. We're going to look a lot different than most people have seen for several years."
Boone enters the 2008-09 season needing just 52 points to reach 1,000 for her career, and is the only player in school history with more than 300 steals. She also averages 3.8 assists per game for her career. It's no wonder the Spartans suffered without her last year. But it's not just what shows up on the stat sheet that makes Boone so vital to the club.
"The biggest thing Kristen gives us is maturity and leadership," Agee said. "She's a terrific leader and motivator for her team. She knows what's going on within the team, she's verbal and she's trying hard to motivate them. She knows that she has inexperience around her. She's being challenged that way, and so far, she's stepping up."
Boone will have some help, though. The Spartans' lone returning starter from last year is sophomore Monique Floyd, a tenacious defender who was rewarded with a spot on the SoCon All-Freshmen Team for an exciting rookie campaign. Floyd has looked solid in the preseason, and the UNCG coaching staff has taken notice.
"Terrific athlete," Agee said of the young guard, "working so hard every day. We're so impressed with her. Together, Kristen and Mo are going to be a real tough 1-2 punch defensively, they're both very quick. ...
"Mo is very impressive, as she was as a freshman at the wing spot. She is clearly in a mode of shutting people down defensively, and she's explosive and quick enough to do that. Her intensity and focus in trying to get herself in passing lanes and really be a defensive threat is impressive. Mo looks very good."
Another area of uncertainty entering the preseason was how senior Gini Grimsley, who started nine games last year, would respond to a move to the post. So far, she has passed the test with flying colors. Grimsley, who spent the first three years of her career in the backcourt and led the team last year in 3-pointers, has been moved to the 4-spot.
"We're looking forward to seeing what Gini is capable of doing," Agee said. "She's very fit, running the floor, and she and Kristen seem to be a good combination at this point, of guard and post."
In fact, Grimsley's emergence in the post makes her a viable offensive weapon and might just be the surprise of the preseason.
"She's really picked up speed," Agee said. "That could be a real key for us, too, if Gini can run the floor. Obviously, depending on who's guarding her, then she can get out and up the court. So, if she's got somebody bigger and slower, she can be clearly in the midst of transition. She's a great finisher, just a tremendous finisher around the basket."
Agee and her staff have also been impressed with the early returns from Lakiah Hyson, Winthrop transfer Amanda Leigh and Ashley Mullins in the backcourt and Kendra Smith, Dee Corbett and Agne Girstautaite in the frontcourt.
"Hyson's going to be a major factor," Agee said. "You talk about the backcourt and the guard game, we could go three littles and be real tough defensively with Hyson, Kristen and Mo, if there's a matchup size-wise that we can handle."
Smith, a sophomore, is the early favorite to start at the 5-spot after coming off the bench in 28 contests last season.
"Kendra looks strong, very verbal on defense, good speed, good quickness; she's going to have to do some banging in there," Agee said.
Corbett, a junior college transfer from Louisburg JC, should also factor into the lineup, but is behind because she missed some of the preseason with a knee injury.
"She's beginning to run now and do all of the practice learning things," Agee said. "She's behind the learning curve a bit just because she couldn't run and was going to the doctor for treatment and all that. All that's ceased now, so I think if Dee can get herself in any kind of shape and really consistently play on that knee, she's a big factor for us."
With four freshmen on the roster and two other players that have yet to suit up for the Spartans in Leigh and Corbett, UNCG is dealing with a bit of the unknown. But Agee feels like any player could step up on any given day.
"They're working very hard," she said. "I'm very pleased with how they have tackled this preseason. This is a young team, and they seem to be fairly quick learners, and that's good. They have a real desire to be good, and they've stepped up their work ethic from the beginning to now. I think it's going to be fun. It's a good group to work with."
UNCG hosts Guilford College at 2 p.m. Saturday.
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