Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s first two years as head coach of the UCF Knights Women’s Basketball team have been nothing short of successful. 21+ wins both years. The NIT second round both years. Top-four finishes in the league both years.
And yet, they’ve come up against a navy-and-white stained-glass ceiling with the giant word UCONN emblazoned across it.
Of course, so has everyone else. Just ask Jose Fernandez at South Florida. What do you expect from a team that has gone 188-3 the last five years and has never lost an American Athletic Conference game?
But there have been moments of promise for the Knights each year, in particular last season, when UCF held the Huskies to 55 points in their second meeting - their lowest point total of the year.
But the three losses to USF, including one the American Athletic Conference semifinals, kept the Knights out of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
Still, that was with two of their key frontcourt players out for much of the year. With a third recruiting cycle under their belts and both of those players returning, this might be the time to make the leap - insofar as the UConn Huskies will let them.
This Year’s Outlook
The Knights are coming off a Division I program record 22 wins, and their first back-to-back 20+ win campaigns since the 1980s. They received one vote - one - in the preseason USA Today Coaches’ Poll (Houston is RV, South Florida is #21 and UConn is...wait...#2?!?)
But despite a third-place finish last year, UCF was picked fourth in the preseason behind UConn, South Florida and Houston.
22-11, 12-4 AAC, 3rd place in The American. It was UCF’s best year since 2010-2011, which was the last time they made the NCAA Tournament. The Knights lost five games to the two teams ahead of them in The American (South Florida three times and UConn twice), but of the other six, all but two came against teams in the RPI Top 100 (UCF was 45th).
The season ended in the second round of the NIT at Alabama, following a 65-60 OT win over Jacksonville in the first round at home.
Who’s In Charge
Coach Abe, Katie Abrahamson Henderson (282-130 overall, 43-23 in two seasons at UCF). She’s won twenty games in each of her two seasons, and is the first UCF Women’s Basketball coach to record multiple 20-win campaigns since Joe Sanchez, who had four straight from 1981-82 to 1984-85.
She also returns her entire coaching staff, including Isoken Uzamere, Tahnee Balerio, and former UConn great Nykesha Sales.
Junior Kay Kay Wright enters her third year as the starting point guard, and has developed into one of the best shot-callers in The American. Her scoring average jumped from 4.8 two years ago to over ten last year, and even though her assist/turnover ratio improved only modestly (1.28 to 1.46), that was largely the result of her having to make more plays with the Knights suffering injuries in their frontcourt. She also led the team in steals last year, so look for her to expand her repertoire this season. Jamesha Paul is back to spell her off the bench.
Masseny Kaba was a revelation last year. The sophomore from Massachusetts averaged 8.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in her true freshman season, and gives the Knights another powerful weapon in the front court with the return of...
Tolu Omokore and Fifi N’dour are back after suffering season-ending injuries last year. They were regular starters in the frontcourt in 2016-17, combining for 15.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
And then there’s the two Swiss Army Knives, Nyala Shuler and Kayla Thigpen, who did everything they were asked last year and then some, and should see their roles adjusted slightly again with the return of Omokore and N’dour.
- Six seniors - N’dour, Thigpen, Shuler, and Paul, plus reserves Sydnee McDonald and Lawriell Wilson.
- Six Newcomers - Transfers Sianni Martin (Junior/Towson) and Anna Kelly (Sophomore/Fordham) join the roster full-time alongside true freshmen Diamond Battles, Britney Onyeje and Brittney Smith. Senior Penn State transfer Jaylen WIlliams will not play due to NCAA rules, but will add more frontcourt punch next season.
- Six players from Florida, including four from Central Florida - Wright (Jones High School), Shuler (Edgewater), Battles (Winter Haven) and Smith (Boone). N’dour, who hails from Senegal, also played her high school ball at Montverde Academy.
Who’s Good That’s New
Pretty much everybody. Freshmen Brittney Smith and Britney Onyeje were both McDonald’s All-American nominees, and Diamond Battles was a four-star recruit, according to ESPN. Among incoming transfers, Anna Kelly was a key bench contributor at Fordham before coming to UCF. But the biggest impact may come from Sianni Martin, who was 6th in the CAA in scoring as a sophomore at Towson in 2016-17 at 14.1 points per game.
Who We’ll Miss
Aliyah Gregory was a steady presence for UCF the last two years. Her Rip Hamilton-esque mid-range game was a life-saver for the Knights two years ago, and despite teams keying on her last season, she still managed near double-figures.
But teams focusing on Aliyah opened things up for Zakiya Saunders, who led the Knights in scoring (16.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 41% FG) in what turned out to be her only season on the floor, all while acting as an on-floor coach for a still-developing team.
When the Big Games Are
- November 7 at Pittsburgh - Season opener
- November 14 at Stetson
- November 24/25 vs. Richmond and Villanova - UCF Thanksgiving Tournament/Home opener
- December 21/22 vs. Liberty and #18 Syracuse - St. Pete Shootout
- January 5 at Memphis - Conference opener
- January 8 at #22/21 South Florida
- January 13 vs. Cincinnati - Home conference opener
- January 27 at #2 UConn
- January 30 vs. Houston
- February 3 vs. #22/21 South Florida
- February 17 vs. #2 UConn
- March 2 vs. Tulane - Senior Night
- March 4 at Houston - Regular season finale
What to Keep an Eye On
Tolu and Fifi. The Knights managed to win 22 games without them providing that 1-2 frontcourt punch. Now, with them back in the mix alongside the young but talented Masseny Kaba, UCF might have the best frontcourt in The American aside from UConn. They will be key factors in Coach Abe’s inside game, particularly as the Knights try to slow down and grind out their four games against high-octane USF and UConn.
Who will score from the backcourt? Two years ago it was senior Zy Lewis. Last year it was senior Zakiya Saunders. So now there are some holes to fill, especially with Aliyah Gregory also gone. Sianni Martin may pick up some of the load, but the Knights have to develop some backcourt depth if they’re going to compete at the level they want.
The Last Time...
UCF won the conference tournament: 2011. That was the last ride for Joi Williams’ original crew of freshmen. It was also their last 20-win season before Coach Abe came in. The Knights beat Tulane to win the league, but lost to Ohio in the first round of the NCAAs.
UCF went to the NCAA Tournament: 2011. UCF has never had an at-large NCAA bid.
UCF won the regular season: 2005. Gail Striegler’s 19-win squad won 14 of 15 at one point, but injuries caught up to them down the stretch. They lost an utterly heartbreaking A-Sun semifinal in Dothan, Alabama to eventual champs Stetson on a layup by Kristy Brown at the buzzer.