A day in the life of the underdog
Hofstra opens pregame preparations, locker room as it readies for UConn
STORRS, Conn. -- Compete with Connecticut for 40 minutes. It's a mission all but impossible for most women's college basketball teams against a juggernaut that is beating opponents by an average of 46 points this season.
But it wasn't the familiar theme song of the hit action movie franchise or its television predecessor that haunted Hofstra assistant coach Faisal Khan and director of basketball operations Michael Gibson in the early-morning hours before their team's game against the top-ranked, unbeaten and seemingly invincible defending champs. Instead, it was the sounds of "The Jeffersons," George and Weezie's upbeat theme song blaring from Hofstra senior Jess Fuller's cell phone, which had been collected along with those of the entire roster the previous night by the coaching staff in hopes of ensuring rest for the players.
Roommates on the road, Khan and Gibson might not have appreciated the interruption at the time -- eventually hiding the offending phone in a towel in the bathroom when they couldn't unlock it to silence it -- but it wasn't a bad summation of life on the other side. The identical thousand-mile stares and head-down shuffles shared by most Connecticut opponents by the end of a game hide stories by the dozen.
"Took a whole lot of tryin', just to get up that hill. Now we're up in the big leagues, getting our turn at bat."
And by spending a day following Hofstra through its preparations for playing the Huskies on Nov. 27 in the WBCA Classic, another faceless foe came to life as a program with its own story under fourth-year coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey.
Since the sun still rose in the east this morning, there's no need to build a false sense of drama. Like the last 120 unranked teams in the same scenario, Hofstra didn't spring the upset of the century. Connecticut let the underdog hang around long enough to be within a point at 8-7 after the first media timeout but ultimately breezed to a 91-46 win. Maya Moore led all scorers with 23 points, connecting on nine of 12 shots, and added her typical statistical smorgasbord with eight rebounds, five steals and four assists.
Roughly 12 hours earlier, as he set up a computer and projector in the hotel conference room recently vacated by players after the team breakfast, Khan jokes that assistant sports information director Stephen Gorchov gave him a hard time for one particular line in the bullet-pointed scouting report on Moore. "Limit her touches," the line read, an instruction both necessary and hopelessly optimistic.
Khan and fellow assistants Danielle Santos and Jessica Mannetti split the scouting responsibilities for the Pride. The Connecticut game comes on Khan's turn in the rotation, so even as the staff tried to keep the players from looking past a game against Albany the day before Thanksgiving (Hofstra won), he was doing just that, poring over video of Connecticut's wins against Northeastern, Holy Cross and Texas in a fruitless search for weaknesses.
Now in his second season at Hofstra, and his ninth season overall in the college game, deconstructing games into their flavorless component parts is such second nature that Khan couldn't even shut that part of his brain off to watch a Thanksgiving game between the Magic and Heat without analyzing why post players weren't switching on their defensive assignments in certain sets. It's a grind that briefly led Khan, who has a degree in social work with a minor in psychology, away from coaching after five years and one NCAA tournament appearance at UNC-Asheville to places as distant as South Africa, where he taught basketball, and Scotland, where he worked in a restaurant kitchen.
But back on this side of the Atlantic, the other side of coaching pulled him back in. He's intense on the court and bitingly funny off it, and there's an almost embarrassed contemplativeness in his explanation for ending up at Hofstra.
"Teaching them, helping them, those are the best parts," Khan said of the players. "The basketball part is secondary to me, personally. It's great, we put a lot of work into it, but I know for me, the interaction I have with them, you can't beat that."
As the video rolls in the darkened room, it's hard to tell how much of the information is sinking in. Sophomore Joelle Connelly asks a couple of questions and wants Kilburn-Steveskey to keep her laser pointer focused on Tina Charles as one slightly blurry play follows another. But there are a few vacant stares and half-hearted responses when the coaches break into the Socratic method. As senior Sam Brigham admits, a lot of it gets repetitive. But especially against Connecticut, mundane isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Hopefully we can give our kids just a snippet of what they do and not make them seem like they're the best team ever," Khan said. "They are, but you want to give our kids confidence to say, 'Hey, you belong.' And hopefully that's how upsets, or whatever you want to call them, things like that happen."
And nobody is really trying to pretend this is just any game. As the team celebrated Thanksgiving the day before at Brigham's family home in nearby Simsbury, Conn., Khan discovered and paraded around an autographed hat she had from one of Connecticut's earlier championships. Candice Bellocchio, who will tease teammate Nicole Capurso about wearing her hair up in a bun in an effort to emulate Diana Taurasi as the two wait to take the floor for warm-ups, admits giggling like a giddy tourist upon entering Gampel for the first time and seeing Taurasi and Bird mementos on the wall. As freshman Shante Evans puts it, people who don't even like women's basketball know about Connecticut. This routine is the same on this day, but this isn't just any game.
"This is like a childhood dream," Bellocchio said. "Growing up, you idolize teams like Connecticut, one of the top programs in the country. They just make a name for women's sports, so being able to come here and play against them is like an honor and an opportunity, a big one for us."
As the film session wraps up and the players retreat to their rooms for an hour before shootaround, Kilburn-Steveskey pulls aside Evans and tells her she'll be starting the game that night -- the grin on Evans' face is evidence enough that it will be the first start of her young career. A 6-foot forward with the versatility to play with her back to the basket or take people off the dribble, Evans was rated the nation's No. 54 recruit last year by HoopGurlz and chose Hofstra over programs with a more of an established pedigree than one still looking for its first NCAA tournament bid.
Along with fellow freshman Candace Bond; sophomores Connelly and Nicole Capurso, whom Evans replaces in the starting lineup; and redshirt sophomores Marie Malone and Bellocchio, Hofstra has a young core of Kilburn-Steveskey's players. Now in her fourth season after four years as an assistant at James Madison and a decade as either an assistant or head coach at the high school level in Georgia, the remnants of the coach's drawl are doubly noticeable around Staten Island accents like those sported by Bellocchio and Capurso. But succeed or fail, she now owns the program on Long Island.
"You're in your fourth year, you've recruited some kids, you've got everybody in your system and you're still young -- because your core is still your freshmen and sophomores," Kilburn-Steveskey said. "So pieces of last year, for sure, and then I really feel like this year we're coming into our own. I think this year is a really good indicator, that OK, you've been here four years and you're looking around at the players that you have and the team that you've compiled and the chemistry that we have, and it's a nice feeling."
Hours later, after the team practiced breaking the press against seven or eight defenders at shootaround (concluded, as always, by Kilburn-Steveskey's husband, Chuck, attempting trick shots from various points in the arena), there still isn't exactly a sense of the condemned awaiting their final meal. Kilburn-Steveskey goes to the hotel gym for a workout. Other staff members relax in the lobby, trying to figure out food issues of varying degrees of importance -- the team's postgame spread on one end of the scale and the merits of banana bread French toast on the other end.
It's only after arriving at Gampel, as the minutes tick down toward tip, that the nervous energy becomes evident.
As Richmond coach Michael Shafer will say the following night after his team takes its hiding from Connecticut, it's mastery of the small things that the Huskies use to pick you apart. Mistakes that might go unpunished against most teams receive no leniency. Missteps are costly, and Hofstra makes several at once against Connecticut's pressure, turning over the ball on travels repeatedly in the opening minutes. Evans looks unsure of herself -- "a deer in headlights" is how the coaches will describe it at halftime. Only Fuller seems completely up to the challenge in the opening 20 minutes, giving almost as good as she gets on the block against Tina Charles at both ends of the court.
It's 43-23 at halftime, but the Pride coaches aren't ready for damage control yet.
"Moral victories are [expletive]," Khan states at halftime to full agreement from the rest of the staff as they meet briefly in their own locker room before addressing the players.
Despite the positive spin in the locker room, things don't begin well in the second half. Marie Malone is called for a double dribble on the first possession, and Kalana Greene finds the hole in the zone that the Hofstra coaches talked about throughout the film session and shootaround and hits a jumper. By the first media timeout, the lead is 59-28, and by the eight-minute mark, Bellocchio is encouraging teammates in a timeout huddle with the reminder, "Seven minutes to get better; it's a long weekend."
Still, there are positive signs for the Pride in the second half. Evans looks far more confident until felled by an inadvertent elbow late in the game. Bond comes off the bench with energy and an offensive mind-set, and Bellocchio commits just two turnovers after she was charged with five in the first half. The Pride didn't play as crisply or as intelligently as they might have had they followed every bit of advice in the scouting report and done everything they practiced, but they didn't play scared.
The locker room isn't happy, but it is upbeat. There is a sense that if they can bottle the energy they came out with and deploy it against merely mortal teams, things might work out pretty well. Wins against St. Francis, Albany and Buffalo hadn't offered that.
"You proved to me what kind of team you can [be]," Kilburn-Steveskey tells the players.
The fates don't treat Hofstra kindly the rest of the weekend. The Pride drop one-point decisions the next two days against Clemson and Richmond, respectively, on baskets in the closing seconds and fall to 3-3 for the season. But the team will regroup, even as Khan readies the scouting report for the next game against Providence in a week.
The opportunity of a lifetime in some respects, playing Connecticut is also ultimately just another long day at the office.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.