The understudy

Kamesha Hairston won’t say it, but she entered last season looking to prove to her coach that she was not given enough playing time as a freshman. “She was determined to play her freshman year,”

Kamesha Hairston won’t say it, but she entered last season looking to prove to her coach that she was not given enough playing time as a freshman.

“She was determined to play her freshman year,” coach Dawn Staley said of Hairston. “She had a senior [Toni Belafonte] playing in front of her, but she wanted to play. When she came back her second year, she wanted to prove to me that I was wrong in not playing her as much as she wanted to play.”

This season, Staley is dishing out a challenge to Hairston. The sixth-year coach wants the junior forward to become more of a vocal leader on a team that lost graduated seniors Cynthia Jordan and Ari Moore.

“She lets her actions speak for her and they speak loudly and clearly through her play,” Staley said. “But I’d like for her to be more of a vocal leader. I think just her personality, in the way that she approaches the game, can be very helpful in helping somebody else go through the growing pains.”

As one of Temple’s three captains, Hairston said she wants to lead the Owls to victories over tough opponents. The Owls will face three teams this season that are nationally-ranked in preseason polls, including Southeastern Conference stalwart Tennessee.

“I want to beat these top teams that we’re playing and repeat the year [we] had last year and even have a better year,” Hairston said.

Hairston played a key role in the Owls’ success last season. Getting a chance to start, she emerged as one of the Atlantic Ten Conference’s best all-around players. She averaged 12.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game en route to being named Second Team All-Conference.

Those numbers were a significant increase from her freshman year, when she averaged 4.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.16 steals per game coming off the bench.

Hairston said her emergence comes from “just being aggressive, being aggressive on both ends.”

She showcased her offensive skills in a tight regular season game against Xavier in which she posted a career-high 31 points. She capped that off with a final-second, game-winning shot that made ESPN SportsCenter’s “Top Ten Plays.”

“It might be one of the greatest moments in my basketball career,” Hairston said. “Just the way that it happened, it was really exciting. I was in a zone, basically. It’s something that I’m capable of doing. I’m capable of putting up big numbers and I did [in] that game.”

Hairston’s offensive output in that game left Xavier coach Kevin McGuff impressed.

“The thing with Kamesha is, you’ve got to make her make tough shots, which she can do,” McGuff said at A-10 Media Day earlier this month. “And I would say, too, you can’t let her get started early because when she starts making some shots early, her confidence level gets so high that now she’s going to start making the really tough ones when you need to fend her off.”

Defensively, Staley said, Hairston has always been solid. The coach noted that Hairston, even as a freshman, was usually pitted against the opponent’s best offensive player. That was recognized when Hairston was named to the preseason A-10 defensive team.

“She locks people up,” Staley said. “She’s big. She’s long. She’s agile. So she’s able to create a lot of mismatches out there on the perimeter.”

Senior all-America candidate Candice Dupree said Hairston also offers “a lot of fire and energy. When she gets mad, I think we play a lot harder.”

Staley said she wants to see Hairston bring this attitude out vocally.

“She needs to get people to play around [her attitude], which is, she’s very competitive, she doesn’t like to lose and we need her to spread that kind of fear throughout our team,” Staley said.

John Kopp can be reached at

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