The Charlotte 49ers return all but two of their players from a roster that garnered an 18-13 overall record last season. Leading scorers Jade Phillips and Mariah Linney, C-USA Freshman All-Conference Team selection Jazmin Harris, and third-leading rebounder Lauren Harley return to Charlotte to lead the 49ers this season. With a talented group of young players and a strong, experienced nucleus of seasoned veterans, the 49ers have a gold standard set for the 2019-2020 season.
“The team goal, of course, is to definitely win the conference tournament this year and to make it to the NCAA [Tournament],” said Phillips.
Fellow senior, Harley, echoed Phillips’ sentiments about striving for a conference championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We think we have enough talent to win the Conference USA Championship and to make it to the NCAA Tournament, so we want to try to do that,” said Harley.
Charlotte Head Coach Cara Consuegra believes that the experience of the 49ers’ core players will help them accomplish their ultimate goal of winning a C-USA Championship and earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“[Last year], we were extremely young. We struggled to win on the road and we made some mistakes that inexperienced teams make,” said Consuegra. “We also grew a lot from that, so just having that little bit of an older feel is going to help us a lot when we’re in difficult situations. To win a championship, you’ve got to win in difficult situations.”
Last season, the 49ers’ tenacious defense was the cornerstone of their success. On average, the 49ers allowed opposing offenses 29.5 three-point shooting percentage, which ranked third in the C-USA. Additionally, in C-USA, Charlotte allowed the fourth lowest total field goal percentage to opponents and sixth lowest average opponent points per game with 38.6 percent and 61.0 ppg, respectively.
“Defensively, we bring back most of our defenders who are really good. We lost Laia [Raventós], but we bring back everybody else that contributed to that really tough defense,” said Consuegra. “You can teach defense and scheme is important, but you also have to have some players that can just play, and we’ve got some players that can play defense.”
Harley, the team’s third-leading rebounder last season, has focused on developing her defensive fundamentals over the offseason and plans to help anchor the 49ers’ stout defense.
“I just want to make my presence known on both the defensive and the offensive end. Because I’m known as a defensive player, I want to expand my role a little bit," said Harley.
Harley’s defensive prowess and rebounding ability will play a key role while Harris, the team’s second-leading rebounder last season, nurses a broken wrist.
The return of junior 6’3" forward Dara Pearson, who missed last season after redshirting, will bolster the 49ers' paint defense and team rebounding ability. In her sophomore season, Pearson started and averaged a team-high 8.6 rebounds per game.
“In terms of the post-play, we’re bringing Dara Pearson back. She was a starter for us as a sophomore,” said Consuegra. “We have some high expectations with her.”
Furthermore, the 49ers’ defense contributed immensely to their offense. On average, the 49ers’ points off of turnovers per game accounted for 20.1 percent of their points per game.
The 49ers understand that defense is an integral part of their identity, but they also want to grow as a team by creating a more efficient offense. Their improved offense starts with better ball movement, as Charlotte averaged a meager 12.4 assists per game last season.
“Our [new] offense is definitely going to improve,” said Phillips. “It’s more versatile, [has] more movement and more screens, so obviously you're going to get more assists off of the rolls, the pops [and] the hand-offs. We’re going to have a way better offense this year. I’m excited.”
To improve ball movement, Charlotte has used three-versus-three and four-versus-four drills that emphasize ball movement, making the extra pass and diagnosing the defensive set to find the open player.
“We spent the summer doing a lot of shooting that involved making the extra pass. We played a lot of three-versus-three games [and] four-on-four games where we created an advantage, so they had to make a read to find the open player,” said Consuegra. “I felt like those drills in particular have really helped us learn our reads better and be able to make better decisions to find the open player.”
Charlotte will look to sophomore guard Jada McMillian, the 49ers’ presumed starting point guard this season, to contribute by facilitating the offense and promoting ball movement.
“I think Jada McMillian will most likely, unless something crazy happens, take over as our starting point guard,” said Consuegra. “She’s not going to be Laia Raventós, but she is going to be her own version of what we need as a point guard. She is one of the most smart, steady players [we have]. That’s going to make us a really good basketball team because we have somebody leading us from that area.”
McMillian will likely often be called upon to get the ball to last year’s leading scorers Phillips and Linney, who averaged 13.4 and 11.1 points per game, respectively. Both Phillips and Linney will step into expanded roles as scorers and be expected to score at a higher volume in the absence of Raventós, the team’s third-leading scorer last season.
“I think Mariah Linney has an opportunity to really have a breakout season as a junior,” said Consuegra. “I inserted her in the starting lineup, and I thought just putting that confidence in her really helped her raise her game. I think Mariah has an incredible skill set on the offensive end.”
Over the offseason, Phillips worked on adding to her offensive repertoire to contribute more to the team as a scorer and to become a more multifaceted player.
“I’ve definitely been working on my left hand. I want to strengthen that to make it as strong as my right because I want to be more versatile,” said Phillips. “I can score and get the rebounds, but I also want to be able to go to my left and finish just as strong as I do with my right, and I’m continuing to work on it every day.”
While Phillips excelled scoring the ball last season, she also led the team with 8.2 rebounds per game. Phillips’ scoring and rebounding ability, coupled with her size, allow the 49ers to transition between tall and small lineups seamlessly.
“One thing I really love about Jade is [her] ability to play her at multiple spots. She can also defend multiple spots, so her value on the court is very high,” said Consuegra. “Offensively, she can score in a variety of ways. We play her at the four position a lot because she creates an incredible mismatch for our defense, but if we want to go big, we can also slide her to the three.”
Charlotte begins their season with a tough slate of games at Wake Forest, at East Carolina, and away against Boston College, Tulane, Kentucky, and Davidson in the Puerto Rico Classic.
“You’ll never see me create a cupcake schedule; it’s not who I am,” said Consuegra. “My goal isn’t to win 20 games every year; my goal is to prepare our team for conference play, the conference tournament and postseason play. I think we’ve constructed a really tough schedule. I think it sets us up for a lot of challenges early and we’ll find out what we’re made of.”
The 49ers begin their season with high hopes and a gold standard on Monday, Oct. 28 at home in an exhibition game against Willliam Peace at 7 p.m.