Coming off one of the weirdest endings to a basketball season in NCAA history, the Charlotte 49ers Women’s Basketball team is ready to pick up where they left off for a fresh start for the 2020-21 season.
Even with the loss of key players from last season, the 49ers have reloaded their roster and are ready to compete at a high level this upcoming season.
“I’m super excited. One of the things that’s come out of this pandemic is a renewed sense of, ‘this could be taken away from you at any point in time,’ and how fortunate we are to do what we love,” said head coach Cara Consuegra. “For me and probably for my players too, it brings a different sense of excitement of reminding us that we get to do this and everyone is putting these resources in to make sure we’re able to play.”
This season opens as a very promising one that consists of talented veteran players, transfers and a great group of freshmen that performed at a high level in their senior seasons of high school. The 49ers are poised to pick up where they left off this past season with the same level of success despite losing some key players in the process.
Leaving the past behind
To say that the way last season ended was disappointing would be an understatement. Charlotte finished the 2019-20 season with a top five record in Conference USA at 21-9, the best record for the team since 2012-13. Charlotte will be missing two key players from last year’s team in Jade Phillips and Christian Hithe. The two combined to average over 23 points per game last year.
“I think there’s a sense of disappointment and emptiness that will never go away,” said Consuegra. “To start something and to put so much into something and not being able to see it through, is just a disappointing feeling that you can’t really describe unless you’ve been through something like that. At the same time, we have to move forward. Things happen out of your control and we have to move forward.”
Last year’s team was led by senior Jade Phillips, who was the leading scorer and a leader of the team the past two seasons. She averaged just under 15 points per game and over nine rebounds per game, which granted her the honors of All-Conference USA first team last season. It will be important to replace Phillips this season but it must be a group effort to replace such a talented player as she was for Charlotte.
“We feel Jade’s void everyday, not just from her production but from her leadership and her personality,” said Coach Consuegra. “The biggest thing I tell my players is that we’re not gonna fill that with one person. Jade was special.”
Instead of focusing on the bitter feeling of the way last season ended, Consuegra and the team have a strong mindset of looking ahead to this upcoming season and the opportunity to run it back and play again this season.
Returning for the 49ers this season are three seniors who have been starters for the team the past two seasons in Mariah Linney, Octavia Jett-Wilson and Dara Pearson. This sound group of veterans have had the privilege of playing under Coach Consuegra their entire collegiate career, which allows them to bring experience, knowledge and leadership to this team on and off the court.
“I think I’ve become more of a vocal leader this year so that’s really been able to help the team,” said Jett-Wilson.
Pearson brings size, rebounding and defensive interior leadership to the team while Linney and Jett-Wilson star on the offensive end by getting to the basket or scoring from the perimeter.
“It’s wonderful, especially Dara who’s in her sixth year now playing for me,” said Coach Consuegra. “Even Octavia and Mariah, they’ve played so much too so it’s not just seniors.”
Also returning from the starting lineup from last year is Jada McMillian, who became the distributor for the team last year and plans on playing in a larger role this season. McMillian had the difficult task of replacing Laia Raventos last year but she held her own at the point guard position. Coach Consuegra has high expectations for her to improve in her junior season.
“I think Jada has a chance to become the best point guard in Conference USA. I felt like, as a sophomore, she really evolved into the point guard we thought she could be,” said Consuegra. “I think as a sophomore, she kind of had to find her way and become confident in who she was and who we needed her to be. I thought in the month of February, she was the best point guard in the league and I certainly expect that to carry over.”
Center Jazmin Harris looks to flourish in a larger role this year. Harris, who stands at 6'3 has played consistently her first two season, averaging 7.4 points per game and adding five rebounds as well. The third-year junior, who put the work in this offseason by improving her game and getting into better shape, looks to bolster the interior for the 49ers this season.
“I think Jazmin Harris is going to be one of the huge surprises of Conference USA not to us but maybe to coaches and players in this league,” said Consuegra. She’s someone I’m really excited about to see on the court and see all the work she’s put in to improve from her sophomore to junior year to see that come into fruition.”
Sophomore guard Cali Konek is another player that has a chance to play more minutes after playing sparingly the season before. As a freshman, Konek was mostly used as a three-point specialist but has improved on both ends of the court this offseason and has the chance to play in a larger role.
“She’s improved tremendously on the defensive end. She’s becoming more confident as an overall offensive player,” said Consuegra.
Despite losing key players like Phillips and Hithe, the 49ers have brought in a talented freshman class that is set to make an impact on the court right away. Jacee Busick and Molina Williams represent the freshman class and can contribute in a variety of ways because of their size, mobility and athleticism. Both players earned North Carolina All-State honors in high school and have the chance to play a key support role in their rookie seasons.
Charlotte also attracted Tamia Davis this offseason who will be eligible to play right away after transferring from Kansas this offseason. Davis, a three-star recruit and former teammate of Jada McMillian from high school, brings her quickness and ability to score at the point guard position.
Dazia Lawrence is a unique player who brings a lot to the team in terms of her ability to score the basketball at a high level. In her senior season at Mallard Creek, she averaged 23.6 points per game and also achieved numerous accolades for her performance that include Mecklenburg’s and the 4A Conference Player of the Year. She was also a member of the North Carolina AP All-State Team. Lawrence is a redshirt freshman who sat out last season due a knee injury that occurred during her senior year of high school but has an opportunity to shine in her first collegiate season.
“She has an opportunity to come in and be a huge impact player,” said Coach Consuegra. “She’s been really great in practice. She’s finally healthy.”
At the helm of this women’s basketball team is Head Coach Cara Consuegra, who will enter her 10th season with the 49ers. With being a part of this team for so long comes experience, leadership and heart which she and her team embodies every time they step on the court. Through nine seasons, Coach Consuegra has achieved 165 wins, which is just 11 wins shy of breaking the all-time wins record at Charlotte for the women’s basketball team.
“I’ve just been lucky to be in a place where I’ve had great mentors from Judy Rose to Mike Hill and people that have allowed me to grow and learn and get better,” said Coach Consuegra. “I think the biggest thing is I’ve been in a place where my values align. My values align with Charlotte and I love being here. I’m just really blessed to be in a great university and a great city where I’m happy and my family is happy.”
Under Coach Consuegra, the team likes to thrive offensively based on how well they perform on the defensive end. The team finished third in the C-USA for points allowed last season with 61 points allowed overall and 59.1 in conference games. With returning and incoming players who can score often and efficiently, playing good defense and forcing turnovers will be crucial in the success for the 49ers team this season.
With the season set to begin in under two weeks, there still remains a certain level of uncertainty about how many games will be played and the safety for the players because of COVID-19 and traveling. Nevertheless, Consuegra and the team is focused on what they can control and relishing the opportunity to play basketball this season.
“We’ve spent a lot of time just talking to our kids about controlling what they can. Looking forward and not looking back and understanding that we have an opportunity to play again this year,” said Consuegra. “There was a chance a month or two ago we weren’t sure that was going to happen. Just embracing that opportunity and looking forward and trying to be even better.”
Charlotte starts the season on Nov. 25 at App State.