Natasha Thames never expected to start inside.
Women’s basketball coach Tonya Cardoza has increasingly asked freshman center Natasha Thames to be a significant contributor in the paint this season. Although Thames averages 18.2 minutes per game, during the past six games, her time has increased to an average of 24 minutes out on the court. Cardoza said she preferred to leave the reasoning behind trusting a freshman with that number of minutes a mystery.
“I’m very superstitious, so I’m not really going to tell you why,” Cardoza said. “I would love to at the end of the season, but I don’t want to put any bad luck on us.”
Thames and center Victoria Macaulay were two of Cardoza’s first recruits. As a senior at Holy Cross in Kensington, Md., Thames averaged a double-double and was named to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference’s All League first team.
“I saw her over the summer, toward the latter part of [last] summer, so I wasn’t able to see a lot of her,” Cardoza said. “I had one of our assistant coaches go out and follow her once [last] September came around, and she told me I needed to go watch her play, so I went and watched.”
Thames initially did not commit to Temple in order to take time to concentrate on academics, but eventually, she joined the Cherry and White.
“The next time I went to see her, I knew that I had to have her on my team,” Cardoza said. “She was a kid that would rebound the ball at one end of the floor and go down and get the offensive rebound at the other end. She’s just nonstop hustle.”
That hustle earned Thames a spot in the starting lineup for the Owls’ season opener against Illinois.
“I really didn’t expect to start because I thought one of the taller girls would start because of the position I was playing,” Thames said. “I was really nervous. There was a lot of pressure on me because I’m new.”
Thames started off hot during the first three games, when she averaged 6.3 points per game and 7.3 rebounds. Then, during the next three games, she never scored more than two points per game and was not pulling in many rebounds, so Cardoza took her out of the starting lineup.
“I knew the plays, and I was confident with the plays, but I think too much when I’m out there, and I think that was one of my problems,” Thames said. “It was just a whole lot of emotions.”
“Coming into this year, I had a lot of confidence in her,” Cardoza said. “I thought she could be Rookie of the Year, but that might have been too much to ask for because she’s thrown in a situation where we really do need her every single night.
“She was rewarded with starting because of what she was doing in practice, and in practice, she was busting her behind and looked really good, and once the games started, I think it was a little overwhelming for her, and so to take some of the pressure off, I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come off the bench?’”
After returning to the bench, Thames saw her numbers begin to steadily improve. She currently averages 4.2 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game and has become a rebounding specialist off the bench while spelling either junior forward Marli Bennett or senior center Jasmine Stone.
“I’m really good at rebounding,” Thames said. “I try to do a good job at rebounding with putbacks, try to hustle, play good defense. With my offensive game, I’m not too confident right now. I don’t know why. It’s just I’m not feeling very confident, but I’m sure that it’s going to develop. It just takes time.
“I’m more of a player who scores on the run, on the go or catch-and-shoot,” she added.
Although Thames may end up with more rebounds than points in a game, like in Temple’s 52-41 win against Duquesne last Wednesday when she pulled down 11 rebounds to five points, she constantly works with assistant coach Wilnett Crockett on all aspects of her inside game. One suggestion she has received to get her offense up to par with her prowess on the glass has been to simply shoot the ball more.
“When I’m open, [Cardoza] yells at me to take more shots, and I’m too timid to shoot,” Thames said. “I can shoot, but I’m just nervous I guess.”
“Over the summer, we’re going to have to really work with her on the offensive end,” Cardoza added. “It’s not that she can’t do it. We just have to build confidence in her that she can score against anybody down there.”
One of Thames’ goals this season, along with improving her offense, is to get her first career double-double, a mark that has remained elusive during the season.
“One game I had nine points and 10 rebounds, and another I had 10 points and nine rebounds,” Thames said. “I’m like, ‘I just need one more.’ That’s definitely a goal. I need a double-double, and I know I can do it.”
Brian Dzenis can be reached at email@example.com.