When junior forward Alexa Williamson went down with a knee injury against Wichita State University (11-11, 2-7 The American Athletic Conference) on Feb. 2, the Owls turned to freshman forward Kyra Wood to take her place in the starting lineup.
Wood got her first start in a 60-59 win against East Carolina (9-14, 2-8 The American) on Feb. 6. She is the third freshman to start this season, including freshman guard Aniya Gourdine and redshirt-freshman guard Jasha Clinton.
“We have a lot of freshmen getting in games,” said head coach Tonya Cardoza. “We trust these guys, and we know they are doing everything we ask of them in practice, so that’s why these young guys are in these positions to play a lot.
The three freshmen combined for more than half of the team’s points in their win against ECU, where the Owls pulled away with the victory thanks to Gourdine’s late-game free throws.
Since filling Williamson’s spot, Wood is averaging 9.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, giving the Owls another option in the low post.
“I love what [Wood] is bringing right now,” Cardoza said. “She is very disciplined, and I think this is a time where she is really growing into herself and what she can bring to this team.”
In a Feb. 6 matchup against the Pirates, Wood established herself as a dominant force in the paint, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
Gourdine is averaging 7.7 points, six rebounds and 4.75 assists per game. She has also played the second-most minutes on the team behind graduate student forward Mia Davis.
In the same game against the Pirates, Gourdine recorded the first triple-double in program history, with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Her performance earned her the AAC freshman of the week award on Feb. 7.
“I am always looking for ways to set up my teammates,” Gourdine said. “I am always trying to just do all of the little things right and as a point guard I think that’s what my job is, so it feels good to finally be getting congratulated for things.”
In the Owls’ last three games, freshman guard Tiarra East and freshman forward Caranda Perea have also received valuable minutes coming off the bench.
When Clinton left the game early with an undisclosed injury against the University of Central Florida (17-3, 9-1 The American) on Jan. 31, East saw an uptick in playing time. The Owls hope she can assert herself as a key piece on offense down the stretch.
Even though the Owls are undersized, Cardoza uses a three-guard lineup because she trusts her guards to get physical rebounds against taller opponents. On Jan. 29 against the University of Memphis (13-8, 4-6 The American), East finished with 10 rebounds and was just one point shy of a double-double.
Perea, who leads the team in 3-point percentage, has served as a spark plug to generate offense.
“I enjoy my role a lot,” Perea said. “I give a lot of credit to my coaches for always instilling confidence in me and letting me know that I am allowed to take those shots, and with time on the floor, I am becoming a lot more confident.”
Against the Shockers, Perea checked into the game in the final minutes of the first quarter and hit a corner 3-pointer as time expired, giving the Owls the lead. She finished with 15 points and shot three for five from 3-point range.
“Our young guys have to continue to give us positive minutes,” Cardoza said. “It’s important that we make sure they are focused and taking care of the basketball because all of these young guys are going to get put in big positions.”
The Owls hope their young players can help them achieve their postseason aspirations of winning the AAC Championship, Cardoza added.
Their next game is away against Tulsa (14-5, 4-4 The American) at 2 p.m. on Feb. 12, and then the Owls return home against the Knights on Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. in McGonigle Hall.