Kendra Faustin used the word “different” several times when describing this season’s Purple Eagles. Different team. Different style. Different pace.
But Niagara was forced to change.
Lauren Gatto, Kayla Stroman and Shy Britton all left the program with a year of eligibility remaining, stripping the Purple Eagles of its leading scorer, point guard and top reserve.
So instead of returning five starters from a 15-16 team, Faustin must replace three key contributors who would have been seniors. Which means ... different outlook?
“I don’t know if we plugged those holes, but we have different answers for those problems and solutions that we were left with,” Faustin said.
Niagara isn’t totally decimated with the return of juniors Meghan McGuinness and Kelly Van Leeuwen. McGuinness is the leading returning scorer at 9.6 points a game and she also shot 35 percent from three-point range. Van Leeuwen, a native of Brantford, Ont., will have an expanded role which could see her scoring numbers double from a year ago.
Another key returner is sophomore Val McQuade, who started 18 of the last 19 games while shooting 42.3 percent from long range.
“We have some kids who can really, really zing it,” Faustin said. “That allows us to spread the floor.”
Add three athletic guards in senior Chanel Johnson and sophomores Sylvia Maxwell and Taylor McKay and the Purple Eagles have players who can get to the rim quickly.
Gatto’s replacement is 6-4 Donisha Watson, a junior college transfer from Monroe Community College in the Bronx. Watson led the junior college ranks as a sophomore with 92 blocks.
“She’s a different presence inside than we’ve ever had,” Faustin said. “She’s not going to score in the post in the same way that we’ve had in the past, but she’s big, she can block shots and she’s athletic.”
Stroman ran the team and triggered the fastbreak but the Purple Eagles won’t rely on a single ball-handler.
“We’re going to outlet and go,” Faustin said.
Keys to success
Playing at a high pace comes with great responsibility so the Purple Eagles must take care of the basketball. Niagara was fourth in the MAAC in assist/turnover ratio (0.8) but was seventh in turnover margin (minus-0.87) and that was with the dependable Stroman at the point. Van Leeuwen is the lone point guard with game experience and she’s been solid in the preseason. Maxwell and freshman Tiffany Corselli will play the position as well, making Niagara young at the point.
Faustin has tweaked the defense to limit rotations with the hope of becoming a better rebounding team.
“Solidifying roles is going to be the biggest challenge for us,” Faustin said. “I think we’ll have some even scoring with everybody doing a little bit of everything.”
The early part of the schedule is tough and if the new offense doesn’t show immediate results Faustin doesn’t want to be tempted to junk the offense entirely.
Faustin probably had a more seasoned group in mind with Bowling Green (Nov. 15), rival St. Bonaventure (Nov. 19), Syracuse (Dec. 19) and UB (Dec. 21) all before the holidays. They ring in the New Year at Quinnipiac (Dec. 29) and Fairfield (Dec. 31).
Fastbreak basketball is entertaining but it wasn’t as if Niagara has ever been boring under Faustin, a noted tactician, who designed schemes to find clean looks for her shooters. A new system also means a period of adjustment and the Purple Eagles will take their lumps early until the kinks are ironed out.