Chana Perry went hard to the basket at practice Monday morning, which is about they only good news the San Diego State women’s basketball team has had lately.
The Aztecs were preparing for a trip they wish they weren’t making, one they never even thought of making.
There was little doubt in the minds of the staff and players that the Aztecs would be making an appearance in a postseason tournament. The only problem is that they were thinking NCAA, not WNIT.
But the Women’s National Invitation Tournament in Amarillo, Tex., is exactly where the Aztecs (24-8) are headed after losing five of their past seven, including a first-round game to Fullerton in the Big West Conference tournament. SDSU is top-seeded in the 21st WNIT and will play No. 8 Radford (23-6) Thursday night.
Even the honor of being seeded No. 1 does not necessarily mean good things. The top-seeded team has lost in the first round of the WNIT the past three years. Nevada Las Vegas of the Big West was last year’s victim, losing to Illinois State, 73-70.
While Perry (who shared Big West player of the year honors with Penny Toler of Cal State Long Beach for the second consecutive year) and shooting guard Julie Evans try to heal physically, Coach Earnest Riggins is trying to heal the team mentally.
“Basically, that’s the main thing we have to work on and focus on is playing better mentally,” said Riggins. “Physically, I think we’re there, everything is in place. The last seven ballgames we went out on the floor and tried to keep from losing instead of going out to win.”
Losing is what the Aztecs did, and at the most inopportune time of the season.
Entering the first of two games with Long Beach on Jan. 19, the Aztecs were 14-0 and ranked No. 12 in the country, best in the program’s history.
The Aztecs’ 99-80 loss to the 49ers was not nearly as ominous as the pain that began affecting Perry, who had been battling soreness in her right Achilles’ tendon most of the season. Finally, it took its toll on Perry and the Aztecs.
Perry, who finished the season averaging 23.3 points and 13.1 rebounds, played off and on until Jan. 30, when her leg was put in a cast until Feb. 6.
When Long Beach came to San Diego Feb. 18, Perry, who had been unable to practice, was noticeably ineffective. She couldn’t move the ball upcourt or drive to the basket. The Aztecs lost, 91-80, in a game that was not even that close.
SDSU followed with a loss to Fullerton and dropped out of the top 20 for the first time. The low point came when the Aztecs traveled to play Pacific, which was sitting near the bottom of the Big West standings, and were routed, 85-68.
That dropped the Aztecs from second to fifth in the Big West and meant they had to play Fullerton, instead of UC Santa Barbara, in the first round of the conference tournament. They had beaten Santa Barbara twice during the regular season by a combined 44 points.
“The injury to Chana did something to us,” Riggins said. “She’s a dominant player, but her leadership ability comes in performance, and the other kids follow. We were hoping that eventually we could get the pieces back together, but I think we never recovered from that.”
If adversity makes a team stronger, then the Aztecs should be ready for the WNIT. But Perry is still feeling pain, and Evans has reinjured a troublesome ankle.
“It’s something we didn’t enjoy,” Riggins said. “We know where we should have been, where we could have been and where we would have been.
“With all those things in mind it really hits hard.”
Radford is is led by 5-foot-5 guard Stephanie Howard, who is averaging 20.2 points, 6.5 assists and 5.8 rebounds. The Highlanders went 12-0 and won the Big South Conference regular-season title, but lost to Campbell in the Big South tournament final to decide the conference’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament. . . . DePaul (22-8) is seeded fourth and is the first team to defend its WNIT title in 16 years. . . . The Aztecs have played just one of the seven teams in the field this season. SDSU defeated sixth-seeded Murray State (21-8), 81-58, January 2 in San Diego. . . . Other teams competing in the tournament are second-seeded Toledo (23-7), third-seeded Richmond (24-6), fifth-seeded Oregon (19-10) and seventh-seeded Notre Dame (20-9).