bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the game at Louisiana Tech and the performance of freshman Jasmine Rutledge, 10 points and six rebounds going up against All-American Adrienne Johnson?
Darin Spence: Well we found out that LA Tech is back. I don't know if they ever went away. I'm sure some people did a couple years ago, thought they'd fallen off the planet, but they're good. They're really good. They're physical, they've got good talent, they've got great experience they're an older team, a lot of seniors and juniors, not much in the way of younger kids. They've got it going. It's interesting, you look through the history of Louisiana Tech sports and that women's basketball team has kept that boat floating for a long time. You walk into that arena and see three national championship banners and two runner up banners and that's five times, Final Four stuff. Now those banners don't come down and play the game but that's that tradition. They've got such a strong tradition and they've decided to recommit to that women's basketball program and they've got it going. There were a couple thousand there when we played, there were over 7,000 there a couple nights before when Fresno State played. The 2,000 that were there at that game, you'd have thought it was 7,000. You could tell that they'd had it going there for a long long time, just the energy and the atmosphere, the fans, the band, the cheerleaders, they all knew what was going on at the same time, it was a great atmosphere.
They're good, regardless of how we played, good or bad, and we did both in stretches, you're going to have to be really good to beat them, especially at their place. They're playing at a really high level of confidence and they're doing a lot of good things.
We didn't help ourselves in that game with some mistakes that we made but we had a couple players, Madison and Jasmine Lowe, both did a good job from start to finish. Could have had a better shooting percentage but when you're being chased and held and dogged around like they were you're just trying to get shots off. When your teammates aren't really stepping up to help you it puts a little bit more on your shoulders. I thought those two for the entire game competed well, found ways to score, found ways to help their teammates like seniors are supposed to do in a very tough atmosphere especially on the road.
We needed some help from others. Jasmine Rutledge i think started the game in a little bit of awe of the environment and started a little bit nervous. Here she is, has to guard a senior All-American candidate player on their floor, she was just a little tentative. We took her out of the game and when we put her back I thought she really turned that corner and gave us a spark and did some good things. She played well in a lot of areas and you could just see her getting better.
We definitely needed better play out of Tabytha and Danisha. As we've talked before, our top four kids, Tabytha, Danisha, Jasmine and Madison, if we're going to be successful every night those four have to do well. They have to hit their averages at least and then the other role players can fill in with them. If we get nights like we have, especially against the better teams in the league where one or two of those four don't meet the minimum requirements we don't do well and we're not going to have a chance to win. We need all four of those kids to keep stepping up and doing well.
We're sitting in an interesting position eight games in and we've got a lot more games to go and we feel good about where we are.
bc.net: With the rescheduling of the Fresno State game you're in a position with four straight home games and a chance, if you can do well, to really set yourselves up in a good position coming down the stretch with the final four games, two on the road and two at home.
DS: Well, the WAC schedule for us was really challenging to begin with this year the way it started. It got a little more interesting with the cancellation of the game and rescheduling. What looks good on paper, four home games in a row, well look at the number of days. We have them sandwiched in there which is not a good thing. We don't have enough days in between. We're playing Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Monday and then gotta play Thursday and Saturday after that. So where it looks good, yeah we have home games, but right now at this time of year, that's an interesting grind to enter into. We've gotta make sure that our mental health is good, not to mention our physical health. Our kids have gotta be extremely energetic and have some enthusiasm and try to lift ourselves us. It would be great to have our crowd continue to grow. They're going to get to see four games here and our players really need our crowd. We're asking all the Aggie fans to step up and come support their women's team and pack this place and lift us to another level. Can we win the next four games? It's possible, sure. But in those four we've also got the first place team and the second place team coming in. It shows you how good Fresno State is. They went to LA Tech and went overtime and lost in overtime there. Those two are definitely head and shoulders above everybody else in our league.
We don't want to get swept by anybody, if we go 2-2 in the stretch of the four home games we're still right there. We're still at a place where we can still finish in that third or fourth spot depending on what we do after that. Can we go 3-1 in that stretch, can we go 4-0? Those are the questions right now and not so much for our coaches but for our players. What does it mean to you kids? How invested are you? What's your ownership level like? Can we rise up and get all four? If we do, man, that would put us at eight wins and we'd still have two more home games after that and really sitting in a really good spot.
The way the schedule is the league is going to play itself out. Utah State has kind of jumped up, they're 6-3, they'll probably win tonight, they have Idaho at home but they've still gotta play LA Tech and Fresno again and go to Idaho. It's still too early to see where everybody is going to finish up because there's so many games left. We've just gotta take care of ourselves, get excited to play LA Tech because that's the first game. The question is will our players rise up? It's in their hands. Will we execute? Will we not not be tentative against LA Tech when we see them? Will be have mentally prepared better for this game than they have? They're already physically deeper than us and a little better in some areas. I still think our one, two and three players, our point and our two wing players are as good as any. But it's a team thing and they still have that LA Tech on their shirt and that tradition means something. We're still trying to build a tradition and get something going and it's been awfully tough and we're still searching for it. But we'll see what the players are all about once we step out there on Saturday night.
bc.net: You mention the short time between the games in the four game homestead. It's similar to what your team went through during December and January not having more than four days between any of the games. Is there anything that the coaches and players can take away from that stretch and maybe do differently or do similar that really helped you during that stretch?
DS: I think that's the trick right? That's the big thing. You say we've been through this, this is why we played these games, this is why we did what we did, to prepare for these games. The crazy thing about this team is, and I say this tongue in cheek, I don't think they sit around and talk about this stuff.
It's an interesting deal with this team. They're great kids and they work hard and they're getting better but our basketball IQ is not at a high level meaning, I'm sure a few of them do [think about it] but half our team probably doesn't even watch basketball which is a really interesting thing. I don't know. We talk about that, we try to draw off those experiences but as I said earlier, this is players' time. I always say coaches get way too much credit and way too much blame as we go through this time, whatever the sport is. The kids are the ones that are playing, the kids are the ones who have to really have that ownership and to stop and say, "This is what the coaches have told us. This is what we went through and why did we go through it? Why were we here in July at six in the morning running and lifting?"
It's for this time of year. This is what that was for. Not just to use up time of your life. The players really have to grasp that and cling on to it and find that juice to really get out there. It goes back to ownership and how much it means to them. If they sit and go, we played at Michigan, at Arizona, at New Mexico, at UTEP, we've played Houston and Northern Iowa, two teams that are at the top of their leagues. Why did we do that? To pay off for this time of year. We'll see when we get back into practice tomorrow what the energy and enthusiasm level is going to be like. I really believe we're excited to play and hungry to make a run.
bc.net: Madison has played at a high level all season long and Jasmine Lowe has really turned her play up the last few games.
DS: Yeah, no question. They're seniors, Jasmine, she's grown up a lot in her two years here and has matured in a lot of areas. She's a player that when she decides to get it cranked up, she's as good as there is in the league. I really believe if she was as committed as she really needs to be and really hungry, she could play for money after college. She has that ability in her. If she stays hungry she could have a great end of her career as she finishes out. We need her to be good for us. We've needed her to be good every day on offense and defense. The thing with her on offense is shot selection and her balance. When she's balanced and doesn't over penetrate, she can really score. Defensively she gambles too much still and gets herself out of position. She's 39th in the country in steals right now so she's got that high level in her, she's just gotta stay focused and keep her composure and when she does she's as good as there is in this league and at this level.
Madison has just been Madison for four years. She's ninth on the all-time scoring list, even missing six games in her career. She's been good. I think as a head coach, she's been under-appreciated by people on the outside looking in and maybe even from the inside looking in too. She's good, she's carrying the load, she's leading the team, she's doing a lot of good things, she's scoring the ball, passing it, handling it, starting to rebound a little bit more. She too is a senior and when it's all said and done, other than Anita Maxwell, I don't think there's another player here who has been pre or postseason All-Conference all four years like Madi has been. That speaks volumes of her and her work ethic and how she's represented this school and this community being a Las Cruces kid. She's done a really good job.
Those two together, they play well with each other, they feed off of each other. When graduation comes, those are going to be two tough kids to replace.
bc.net: Madison's numbers over the four years have been incredibly consistent, right around 14 points per game, she has a good assist to turnover ratio. What has been the key to her consistency?
DS: My first response to that is looking back, Madison has always had this, "I've gotta do so much more to prove to everybody that I belong and that I didn't get a scholarship just because my dad is the coach." She doesn't have to prove anything to anybody. She could have played at a lot of different schools around the country. You've gotta love a kid who's commitment level to her community and her family, she wants to give back and that's a great thing. You don't see that too often these days.
Her sophomore year, we should have redshirted her. She was sick with mono, she had the peanut allergy, all that stuff and I watched a kid play the entire year, it's funny because she was Top 5 in the league in scoring that year, but we weren't good. We had a very very young team. I even asked her, I said, "What do you think about redshirting this year? Let's let these young kids take some knocks, learn, get some experience and you get healthy and play the next year?" And she said, "No, this is my team. I'm not going to do that to them." Well, there's always hindsight but it was really tough to see her play the entire year sick. We played a game at Kent State where she dropped 32 on them, I think it was an afternoon game, I thought, "Man, this kid has a chance to be really really good." But it was just a rough year. Then going into the next year, her junior year, she got herself in great shape and was doing good and then into this year as well. She's a hard worker. She's a kid that has spent time and she's one that's got a lot of ownership and investment in her game and this program. If we could sign more player that have that drive, our program will keep getting better, anybody's program across the country, no matter the sport, if you could get more kids like that you've got a chance to be pretty good. As coach, I'm proud of what she's become in her four years here.
bc.net: What improvements have you seen in her game over the four years?
DS: Her leadership over the four years, she's always been a leader by example. She's our best worker but vocally, this year she's a lot more vocal during the games. She's started to rebound the ball better. She's really gotten her dribble move pullups, that's the one thing that has really gotten better and she's had to because she gets everybody's best perimeter defender. She's played against 5'5" little quick kids to 6'1" long rangy kids. She's seen it all and she's taken a lot of abuse in this league and when she gets to the foul line she's pretty good. I don't think she's gotten any star treatment like a lot of other kids in this league where she could be shooting a ton more free throws. She's taken a beating which is obvious with the injuries all four years she's had some serious injuries that people don't know about that she's had to play through, not just the glaring ones where she's missed those games. I think her overall competitiveness has improved a bunch as well and made her into the player she is today.