Leader Blues

Friday, December 19, 2008

SPORTS>> SHARP SHOOTER

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Don’t misunderstand him. Joe Foley is really high on junior guard Kim Sitzmann, but the University Arkansas-Little Rock head coach isn’t comparing her to Michael Jordan.

He’s only saying that the great shooters share one thing in common: They all eventually hit a rough patch.

So it was with Sitzmann, the former Cabot High standout who took the Sun Belt Conference by storm two seasons ago by earning Freshman of the Year honors. Seems Sitzmann, a three-point shooting specialist, was struggling with her specialty when the 2008-09 season began last month.

“It was bound to come sooner or later,” said Foley, the Trojans’ head man the past five years who has compiled a 533-150 career record. “All the great shooters, even Michael Jordan, go through that. It’s just part of the game. Sometimes the basket looks real big, sometimes real small.

“It looks real big to Kim right now.”

Big enough that Sitzmann’s 28 points and five three-pointers against Southern Miss and six steals and 13 points on three three-pointers against 17th-ranked Oklahoma State garnered her Sun Belt Player of the Week on Dec. 9.

“That was a complete thrill,” said Sitzmann, whose Trojans (8-2) received votes for the Top 25 for the first time in their history. “I was pretty excited.”

Though she was anything but excited, she never lost her confidence when she came out of the chutes this season averaging just seven points and making only 6 of 20 threes over the first five games of the season. Sitzmann, who led UALR in scoring as a freshman, said she wasn’t looking for her shot all that much in the early going. Her teammates, she said, got on her for not shooting enough.

She responded with a three-game stretch during which she scored 61 points and made 13 of 25 three-pointers. She also snagged 15 steals over that span, two more than she’d recorded through the first five games.

“I wasn’t all that frustrated because I figured the shots would come,” said the 5-10 Sitzmann. “But it feels great to have the shooting slump gone. Hopefully, it stays gone.”

Sitzmann re-emergence just happened to coincide with one of the more remarkable stretches the Trojans have ever enjoyed. After struggling a little early – sneaking by at Grambing by a single point after losing on the road at Southeast Missouri State – UALR ripped off five straight wins, including impressive ones over Rice, Southern Miss, Oklahoma State and Tulsa. On

Thursday, they went on the road and beat Ole Miss.

That win over the Cowgirls, then ranked 17th in the country, put UALR women’s basketball on the map, Sitzmann said.

“Playing a Big 12 school is a big deal,” she said. “We had 1,800 people here and it was great. We didn’t even play all that well and still beat them. They know where Little Rock is now.”

Foley said Sitzmann wasn’t what he would call a “can’t-miss” coming out of Cabot, despite the fact that she averaged 21 points, four assists, six rebounds and three steals in her career there. She was a two-time All-State player and was named All-Conference in all three of her seasons.

SMOOTH TRANSITION

Her sophomore year, she led the Lady Panthers to the 5A state championship game. But Foley said there were nights he came to watch her play when she looked merely like an above-average player.

“You never really know with high school kids,” said Foley, who entered his sixth season at the Trojan helm with a 77-70 record. “Some kids you can say, yeah, she’s going to be a great player. A lot of it is what kind of work habits they have, how much they want to put into the game, whether or not they’re going to be real good players.

“But coming from a real good program like Cabot, you knew she had good work habits. Some nights I’d watch her and think, she’s something special. She’s got that court awareness and coaching ability on the court. That’s something they develop if they have a love for the game.”

That 5A championship game in 2004 is one Sitzmann said she likely won’t ever forget. And not just because she and the Lady Panthers played in front of an Alltel Arena crowd of more than 10,000. She’ll remember it for what might have been. Cabot was whistled for a dubious traveling call late in the contest, missed two free throws that might have iced it, and lost by a single point to Parkview on a last-second rebound basket.

“I think about it all the time,” she said. “We should have had a championship ring.”

Sitzmann said the transition to Division I basketball from high school wasn’t nearly as tough as it might have been. She knew the pace of the game would be quicker, she said, but credits Cabot High School coach Carla Crowder and assistant coach
Charles Ruple for helping to prepare her.

“They’re just amazing,” she said. “Basically when I came up here, I just had to get used to the speed. The transitions are a lot faster and you have to get used to the shot clock.”

Sitzmann served notice from the beginning that she was going to be better than the above-average player Foley witnessed some nights on his recruiting trips to Cabot. Though her first game was against D-II Ouachita Baptist, Sitzmann scored 10 points and grabbed seven steals. Pilferage, along with her trademark sharp shooting, would become her stock in trade as a freshman as she recorded 70 steals to lead UALR.

She followed her debut with 11 points, 10 assists and four steals against Creighton; 14 points, eight assists and three steals versus Southern Arkansas; and 18 points and seven boards against UT-Arlington. Sitzmann was off and running.

Sitzmann garnered Freshman of the Year honors after leading her team with averages of 14.1 points, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals as UALR compiled a 21-10 record.

Last year, Sitzmann’s average fell off to 12. 4 points but she raised her overall shooting percentage. Sitzmann’s drop off in points, assists and steals can be in part attributed to recovery from surgery for tendenosis in her knee, a disease that blocks the flow of blood to the tendon. Surgery at the end of her freshman season left her out of shape at the start of her sophomore season and she never full recovered. The extra weight slowed her down and limited her effectiveness.

Sitzmann still suffers from the effects of the disease and will likely require more surgery. In the meantime, she is fit and trim and playing through the pain of her knee ailment.

“I’m pretty psyched before games so I generally don’t think about it much,” she said. “And they numb it up. But, yeah, it bothers me. It’s hurting right now.”

SURPRISING START

What makes Sitzmann’s relatively smooth transition to D-I basketball more impressive is that it came while learning one of the most difficult offensive systems – the motion offense.

Indeed, Foley said UALR is one of only a couple of women’s basketball programs that runs the offense whose creation is credited to coaching legend Bobby Knight. And almost no high schools utilize it.

The learning curve for the motion offense is steep and Foley said it usually takes new players a full year to begin to grasp its intricacies.

“We have to do a lot of teaching,” Foley said. “It’s the hardest offense to teach and the hardest to learn. But it’s also the hardest to guard.”

Unlike a standard offense that features set plays, the motion offense is read-and-react, allowing the players more freedom but requiring much more precision and concentration.

“They have to learn how to coach themselves out there,” Foley said. “I’ve never had a freshman that wasn’t frustrated but I’ve never had one that at the end of the year didn’t find it rewarding.”

Sitzmann had 99 turnovers as a freshman in the new offense and cut that back to 72 as a sophomore. Her decision-making and anticipation, both on offense and defense, continue to get better and better, Foley said.

“The thing I see about Kim is, when the game gets tight, you see her come to the front because she has the experience and that maturity,” he said. “Last week against good competition, she really stepped it up.

“She makes crucial steals for us. She’s one of those connivers who may not try to do it every time, but when it hurts you the most she’ll take the heart out of you.”

Sitzmann is one of only three juniors on a team with no seniors, making her a de facto leader, along with fellow junior Anshel Cooper of Marion.

All that youth has Foley scratching his head trying to explain how his Trojans have raced out to such a good start. After that five-game winning streak, the Trojans stumbled in a road loss to Missouri State earlier this week, a team that came into the game with just one win.

But UALR responded with another history-making win on Thursday night, beating its first-ever Southeastern Conference team with a 64-61 overtime victory at Ole Miss.

“This is a schedule we looked at and could see helping us get ready for conference,” said Foley. UALR won its first-ever SBC West Division title and reached the WNIT for the first time last season. “Both Southern Miss and Rice beat us last year and with Oklahoma State we thought, hey, we may lose a little confidence, but we’re also going to figure out what it takes to win.

“It could have been a killer schedule as young as we are, but we also thought we had good athletes and good players. We got a little ahead of schedule.”

SPECIAL SEASON

This year, it was another distraction that may have led to Sitzmann’s slow start. Her mother had been ill in the hospital earlier in the season. She’s better now and Sitzmann hopes she and her father can start coming to her games again.

Todd and Luan Sitzmann, she says, missed only one game prior to this season, whether the Trojans were playing at home or on the road. Todd is retired from the Air Force, giving them the freedom to travel to watch their daughter play.

“They drove to California, they flew to Florida, they go everywhere,” Sitzmann said. “The Southern Miss game my freshman year was the only game they’d missed before this season. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Sitzmann hopes that her folks will be returning to watch a record-breaking season for the Trojans, who, along with Arkansas State, were the preseason picks to win the West Division.

The sting of missing the NCAAs last season when the Trojans lost in the conference tourney semis to Middle Tennessee State, is still there. But Foley said the SBC is starting to gain respect around the country and it is no longer necessary to win the outright tournament title to earn an NCAA bid.

“It’s really political,” he admitted. “There are so many teams on that next tier and sometimes you get in and sometimes you don’t. A couple of years ago, Western Kentucky was 17th in the RPI and didn’t even get in.

“But Middle (Tennessee State) has beaten LSU the last couple of years and we beat Oklahoma State, so we’re starting to get better awareness. We’ve got two kids (from the SBC) playing in the WNBA this year.”

Foley said that, before his team can worry about such things, they need to improve in a lot of areas they’ve been able to cover up by playing at home. Overconfidence, he said, should not be an issue.

For Sitzmann, this season and the next hold much promise.

“This could be a special year,” she said. “We’re young and that will factor into how we finish out. But every year that I’ve been here, we’ve played our best ball in March. We usually start getting pretty good in January. This year, we’re already playing good now.”