A year ago, Tonya Cardoza’s recruiting class for 2014 presented a change in dynamic – and the reuniting of three friends.
Tanaya Atkinson, Alliya Butts and Khadijah Berger all knew each other before they arrived on Main Campus prior to the start of the 2014-15 season.
Through outlets like Amateur Athletic Union basketball and various summer camps, Atkinson, Butts and Berger developed a personal connection that has since carried over to their collegiate squad.
“They’re like my sisters,” Berger said of her teammates. “We all knew each other before we came here so when we all committed it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to be three freshmen coming in, we have this really good bond and it should reflect on the court.’”
With five players from last year’s team returning to the women’s basketball squad for 2014-15, it was apparent that the incoming freshmen class would have to step up and play big minutes for the Owls.
Through 19 games, Atkinson and Butts have worked their way into the starting lineup, while Berger is averaging nearly 16 minutes per game off the bench.
Atkinson, averaging 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest, has started all 19 games for the Owls in an up-and-down campaign.
At times, she has shown flashes of potential as a prolific scorer and rebounder, as exemplified by her 22-point, 11-rebound effort against Howard University on Dec. 18. During others, she seemed to disappear from the game.
After failing to score in the team’s 92-58 loss to No. 2 Connecticut last Wednesday, she netted 16 points as the team’s second-highest scorer in Saturday’s 72-57 defeat of Central Florida.
“At college, it’ll really be exposed whether you’re working on your game or if you’re not,” Atkinson said. “Sometimes I kind of get in the middle of that, but I’m trying to change and become a better [overall player].”
Butts, who started the season coming off the bench, has recently taken over the starting point-guard duties. The Edgewater Park, New Jersey native is averaging 11 points per game, but said she has mixed feelings about her new role.
“I like the idea of being a starter, but it’s tough,” Butts said. “You have very high expectations and you just have to improve them each time you get on the court.”
Butts took over for last year’s freshman guard Feyonda Fitzgerald after Fitzgerald was moved to the bench.
She said a bond with Fitzgerald, a sophomore, has helped ease her transition to the new role.
“We’re really close,” Butts said. “She’s teaching me and I’m trying to learn from her since she has one year over me.”
“She’s very helpful,” Butts added. “At practice, during the game, she’s constantly telling me to keep my head up when I get down.”
Berger, meanwhile, has seen her role fluctuate from game to game. Her best game thus far came against Harvard, when she posted 13 points and six rebounds. She also saw 31 minutes against Big 5 rival Villanova.
Coming out of Hampton, Virginia, Berger said the transition from high school, where she played a starring role, to the collegiate game is a difficult one.
“Competition-wise, I feel like the intensity is much higher than high school and I feel like it’s a much faster pace,” Berger said. “It’s something to get adjusted to.”
Last Wednesday, the three freshmen faced possibly the biggest adjustment of their early careers when they matched up with UConn.
It was a learning experience for them, as none of the three put up sparkling numbers.
Butts had the most success of her classmates in their first shot at the Huskies in a 14-point performance. Berger hit one of her six attempts from the floor, while Atkinson failed to crack the scoreboard for the first time all season.
“I think it’s a great experience for them to be put into that environment and to see what it’s like, because they’re going to have to do this for the next couple of years,” Cardoza said after the game. “The fact that all three of them got to play significant minutes, it’s only going to help.”
Owen McCue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org