Spire senior, a cornerstone for team's success

The big news coming out of the University of Saint Mary women’s basketball program is that they are on a school-record, 10-game winning streak heading into the final two games of the season, beginning with Thursday night’s visit to Southwestern College.

Add in the fact they have won a program-record 16 games, have qualified for the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) playoffs with room and time to spare and likely will finish in third place at best with a win in one of the last two games, and at worst fourth place.

Either way, they will host a KCAC playoff game next week.

Yet, for ardent fans, the bigger story may be about the play of senior guard Imani White.

White is listed at standing 5-foot-9 – maybe when she’s in a good mood. The senior out of Omaha, Nebraska, and a two-year Spire has taken the league by storm this season.

White is averaging 15 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on the season, while playing inside for the small, run-and-fun Spires’ team while also drawing tough defensive assignments against some of the bigger, bulkier players in the post. While doing so, she is still shooting 47.3 percent from the field while getting shots off against bigger defenders and has also blocked 1.5 shots a game. In KCAC play, her numbers jump to 17.6 ppg and 8.2 rpg and she has recorded a handful of double doubles.

“For her to do what she does, when the kid won’t shoot a jump shot, is phenomenal,” USM head coach Bruce Erickson said. “She knows how to use her body. She is the only kid I know that can double pump and never jump more than an inch off the ground. But she understands space and angles really well and most of the time she finishes really well. She is not afraid of contract.

“We worked with her on a jump shot, but I take what she gives me. It’s just her effort. She’s a stone face, plays through it and is a good mentor for the younger kids to see how hard she plays.”

Quite the jump from 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game while playing as a physical wing player a season ago.

“I definitely have seen the improvement in Imani,” junior USM guard Ashley Hinkle said. “She’s definitely picked up her game … she’s up there. It’s crazy now, she’s gone so far and she can still keep going. She’s done a fantastic job.”

The style of play has changed with some new additions to the roster that created a more sleek, interchangeable, aerodynamic lineup. That has allowed Erickson a chance to set his offense loose more and step out of running as many set plays. The open game has allowed White to be a bit more free in her offense and has been able to create plays in space.

“Coach has more sets for her and how we can run around her,” Hinkle said. “She can get the buckets and we have support. If she’s not there, she can kick it out to us and we can get it right back to her. 

“I saw it coming. She hit a spark and she is going. It’s her senior year and it’s now or never and she’s going for it.”

A senior year that will mean it’s all over for White, who has been playing since she was 5. It could all end next week or potentially at the NAIA Division II national championships.

“Last year, I was still trying to figure out where my position was and I didn’t feel like I needed to be that be that big a scorer,” White said. “It was more defense and rebounding. This year, I need to rebound, play defense, and I need to score when I need to score. There were some games where I couldn’t get in there (to score) so I had to figure out how to do something else to help my team. 

“This is my last year, I am trying to get this ring and go out with a bang and go out strong. At my JUCO (North Central College) we were one game away from the national tournament. … I don’t want to go through that again. This is it. There are no more runs. I don’t want to play after this. I want it all to be worth it and to be able to say ‘OK, I played basketball,’ and I need something to prove it was all worth it. I was Player of the Week? Who cares about that. I want more and I want my teammates and program to have more. I believe everyone deserves it.”

Erickson believes White is one of the best players in the league and definitely a first-team All-KCAC candidate.

“She got a National Player of the Week award and six double-doubles,” Erickson said. “Imani has opened a lot of eyes and has put big numbers up against great teams. What she does with her athletic ability and how she plays the game? I have not had anyone do that. She is a driver, a finisher, a great free throw shooter and rebounder. She takes what she’s pretty good at and makes herself a great player.”

Some of the USM newcomers – including Candy De Los Reyes, the team’s leading scorer – have opened up White to get more space to work as her teammates provide an array of other attacking options.

But, make no mistake, White’s presence has made life easier for the newbies.

“She’s a really good defender and that helps me with my steals and defense,” De Los Reyes said. “When it gets down in the post, she’s down there on their post and I am on the wing and when they try to get it out I can make the steal. That’s where most of my points come from. She makes it hard to get the ball out. 

“Offensively, she is smart and she knows when (to attack the basket or pass it out).”

“The fact that they can shoot the 3, helps,” White said. “It makes it so much easier. It’s hard for people to guard us. If you go zone, we will attack a zone. This year is very special. I am not ready for it to end.”

Twitter: @LVTSportsGuy