First year coach Nitra Perry’s confident and poised demeanor served her team well in their 53-39 victory over Georgia Southern Eagles.
However the final score wasn’t indicative of just a blowout; there was another layer beyond just one team beating another: it was about a new head coach and her innate ability in getting her players to respond.
In the first half, Kennesaw State did everything to test the patience of their head coach as they weren’t playing "Owl Basketball." The Owls got off to a sluggish start as they were their own worst enemy: losing out on 50-50 balls, offensive fouls and missing lay-ups. As the first half came to its conclusion, Kennesaw State was shooting a bleak 17.2% from the field while Georgia Southern shot nearly 40%.
"Things just weren’t happening like they normally would (in the first half)," said Perry. "Like they say ‘Momma said it would be days like this’, it was a day like that in the first half. Because I felt like (in) the second half, we got what we called 50-50 balls.
"And that’s what was lacking in the first half, it wasn’t about missing the shots, it was about the effort."
As the second half started, one could see a paradigm shift had taken place in the Owls. It was as if something was awakened within them. They were not the same team that took the court in the first half. The missed lay-ups now were being converted, the shots that were a little off were falling and, most notably, there was a laser-like focus and fortitude that was absent earlier in the game.
A fire within the players was ignited.
It started with their senior point guard Ashley Holliday; she was the catalyst for the Owls as they opened the half on an 8-0 run. Holliday came out very aggressive -- she asserted herself by scoring six straight points on back to back threes.
"Well like coach told me at halftime, I had to adjust," said Holliday. "I didn’t bring as much energy in the first half as I usually do, so I wanted to make sure that I (brought) that in the second half. My teammates kind of feed off of that, so I wanted to make sure that I was there for them -- bringing the energy even if I wasn’t going to be able to score."
After taking Kennesaw State’s initial punch, Georgia Southern countered to go back up by one with 13:36 left. But it was all for naught as the Owls overtook the Eagles less than a minute later to never relinquish the lead again.
Even with momentum now on their side, Perry didn’t allow her players to become complacent as she used timeouts when necessary. And after every timeout, the Owls answered in loud fashion as they always extended their lead -- all the while outscoring Georgia Southern 39-19 in the second half.
One player that took heed to her coach’s words and responded was do-everything forward Sametria Gideon. Not to be outdone by her senior counterpart in Holliday, Gideon continued to dominate on the inside. Whether it was rebounding, scoring or blocked shots, Gideon was all over the floor contributing in every facet -- she ended the game with a double-double of 15 points and 15 rebounds.
"Coach," says a laughing Gideon after a deep sigh. "She is always on me, I know she expects a lot out of me and she’s been in my head telling me ‘(Sametria), you can do it.’ So I just followed through with that and her encouragement just led me to that (performance).
Once again, Perry’s influence was apparent and obvious.
"Coach expects a lot out of us," said a smiling Holliday. "Even if it’s that voice of disappointment, yelling at us, we want to make sure we do it right the next time. We feed off of that, we want to make her happy. We want to make her proud and doing the things that she’s telling us to do and that’s what we feed off of."
The common theme Friday night was the leadership of Kennesaw State’s head coach -- a coach that has her players growing, competing and believing.
"My expectations of (Holliday and Gideon) are great," said Perry. "For them to step up it says about their leadership and that the team is willing to follow them, it just says a tremendous about them."
And it also says a lot about their coach too.