By Chris Kowalczyk
When the VCU Women's Basketball team hosts Longwood Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Arena, Head Coach Beth Cunningham isn't entirely sure what the Rams will see.
On Dec. 6, the Lancers replaced Head Coach Kristin Caruso with Men's Assistant Bill Reinson. In the 12 days since, Longwood has played just one game, a 74-70 win over Wright State on Dec. 11. In the meantime, Reinson will likely have had ample practice time to take inventory of his team and decide if changes are necessary.
"A lot of the tapes and DVD's we're watching are prior to him having an opportunity to coach them," Cunningham said. "Obviously, we're very familiar with their personnel. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some things tomorrow that we haven't seen on tape. We've just got to make sure that our kids are ready for whatever is thrown at them."
The Lancers enter Saturday's affair at 2-6. They had lost six in a row prior to Caruso's departure. Brittani Billups leads Longwood with 13.6 points and 8.3 rebounds this year, while Richmond-native Chelsea Coward adds 11.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
VCU has defeated Longwood in each of the last four seasons by an average of 23 points per game. The Rams secured an 84-64 win last year in Farmville behind 25 points from La'Tavia Rorie.
PUTTING A HURT ON THE OPPONENTS
Junior Courtney Hurt continues to put up impressive numbers. The 6-0 forward currently leads the nation in rebounding (13.0 rpg) and ranks third in scoring (24.7 ppg). Additionally, she's booked a double-double in all seven games this season.
"Am I surprised? No, because I know that Courtney has the potential to be one of the best players ever to walk through this program," Cunningham said. "Now, she's nowhere near that yet, but ultimately that's the goal."
In order to reach that goal, Cunningham would like to see her star hone some of the finer points of the game.
"I think the next step for her is improving on the offensive end in areas that are going to make her more efficient," Cunningham said. "Just getting her to play smarter and take better care of the basketball."
Hurt, who handles the ball on nearly every VCU possession, has a team-high 44 turnovers this season.
If she continues at this early pace, Hurt could challenge some school records, to say the least. Just four Rams have averaged better than 10 rebounds a game for a single season. Quanitra Hollingsworth last did so for VCU in 2005-06 (11.1). The school record for rebounds per game in a season is 12.1, set by Niamh Darcy in 1994-95. Additionally, her seven double-doubles are three shy of her total from all last season. The school record for a single year is 18, set by Hollingsworth and Darcy.
Hurt's rebounding ability is somewhat surprising, given that at 6-0, she's just the third-tallest player on her team. But Cunningham understands that so much of rebounding is positioning, effort and instincts.
"She just has a nose for the ball," Cunningham said. "When you watch her play, there's times she comes up with rebounds where you don't know how she was able to come up with it. She just has a knack for rebounding.
"If you look at some of the best rebounders across time, they all have that edge that Courtney has. The ability to anticipate where the ball is going and be quick to get it."
JOHNSON EMERGING AS NO. 2 OPTION
Sophomore Sonia Johnson is coming off back-to-back performances of 19 and 20 points, respectively. Prior to those two contests, the 5-7 guard was averaging 4.6 points per game.
During her freshman season at Delaware State in 2007-08, Johnson averaged 11.1 points and grabbed 37 steals. For her efforts, she was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Rookie of the Year. After a slow start, Cunningham is beginning to see the player she knew the Rams were getting all along, a tough guard with the ability to score and rebound.
"Bringing Sonia in and having a year of experience, we really had high expectations for her this year," Cunningham said. "I think one of the main reasons Sonia's had two of her better games is that she's getting more comfortable and learning what she needs to do and where she needs to be."
Johnson's emergence comes at a time when VCU is looking for another scorer to compliment Hurt. The Rams are averaging 63.7 points a night, with 24.7 of that coming from Hurt. After shooting .222 (8-of-36) in VCU's first five games, Johnson knocked down 13-of-16 attempts in the Rams' last two contests.