By Michael Saenz
Some will call it a fluke, others just catching luck at the right time but head women’s basketball coach Denny Downing hopes to look back at what happened Jan. 5 and point to it as the time of takeoff for this season’s team.
“We needed to change our mindset. We needed to go in there and expect to win,” Downing said of the victory over TCU. “Our kids really were focused to win, we always have a chance because we defend well.”
The 56-54 victory over TCU Jan. 5 was huge for the program, giving a much needed momentum supplier for the team that will now carry a three-game winning-streak into Great West Conference play. A year ago the Broncs finish was “a little disappointing” as Downing says, whose team now stands at 7-11 heading into conference play which begins Jan. 19 against Chicago State.
“There’s a point in a season where a team either takes off or tanks. Last year heading into conference play we hit a wall and kind of tanked. We finished a little disappointing,” he said. “Hopefully the two-week layoff doesn’t affect us that much, but I really never look at anything negatively. The layoff will just give us more individual practice time.”
A year ago the Broncs carried seven wins into conference play but went 4-8 during GWC action. This year, similarly, UTPA also takes a seven-win total in GWC play but hopes to have a different finish in comparison to last year.
“I believe that we are refocused and settled back down,” Downing said.
The Broncs finished the first half of the season with a Rating Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of 205 out of 342 division I programs. To put this in perspective, UTPA finished last season ranked 319 and 301 the year before that. They have played the 59th toughest schedule in the nation this year, facing six games against opponents in the RPI Top 100 – Miami (23), Nebraska (31), Oklahoma State (43), UTEP (81), Colorado (91) and McNeese State (93).
The Broncs also have the highest RPI mark in the Great West Conference, with North Dakota second at 241.
If only it were as easy as to say the highest ranked team wins the conference title. It’s not. Everyone still puts on the jersey one arm at a time, and the shorts one foot at a time. And Downing is keeping that in perspective with his players as well.
“The RPI is really used in postseason selection. We just have to continue to give effort and play hard,” the third-year coach said. “We have a saying and it goes ‘no one plays harder than us.’ Our defense has gotten significantly better, now we just need to focus on making shots.”
Yes, defense wins championships, but one can’t get to the championship without an offense. The Broncs have done well on defense allowing a conference-best 62.8 points per game and against good competition. So do the Broncs have an edge heading into GWC play? That has yet to be seen, but they definitely have a great start.
And if all else fails, well, Downing says it best.
“One constant is we’re guarding people.”