Despite inconsistencies, Southeast Missouri State women's basketball continued growth in Year 2 under Patterson
It's hard to make comparisons. Even when you think you're matching apples to apples, they might be two different varieties of apples with their own unique undertones.
So the 2016-17 season -- Year 2 of the Rekha Patterson era -- had its own set of challenges for Southeast Missouri State women's basketball.
"In Year 2 the question was, 'Who are you really? Are you guys going to be a one-hit wonder or are you for real?'" Patterson said. "The challenge was continuing to build upon your identity.
"It's like being married. Year 1 is like when you first meet each other and it's the best thing in the world and everyone wants to prove themselves -- their worth and loyalty, and they're willing to do whatever. Year 2 is after the honeymoon. You are who you are. The need to prove yourself sort of goes away, and that motivation you had, a lot of times for young people it's different."
Year 2 came to an end two weeks ago, with the Redhawks falling to top seed Belmont in the first round of the Ohio Valley Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, to finish the season 13-17 overall.
In the time since, the team put together it's end-of-the-year banquet, monitored the players to make sure they're on track academically for the rest of the year and, as Patterson said, "recruiting never ends."
There has also been some time to reflect on the post-honeymoon period, and Patterson believes it was the roller-coaster ride of the past four or five months that best defines the campaign.
"Well, I think that we were consistently inconsistent," the coach said, "but we were still able to meet the goal of getting to Nashville. Whenever you are building a program, getting to Nashville is a big thing in the OVC. We were able to accomplish that goal."
It was most certainly a season marked by both failure and success for SEMO, which never won more than two games in a row, a feat it managed only twice, but also never lost more than two games in a row.
There were highs such as twice matching a school-record 107 points, being extremely competitive with Southern Illinois, Memphis and Belmont on the road, and a sweep of Murray State.
There were lows such as dropping a home game to OVC bottom feeder Eastern Illinois, a last-second loss to SIU-Edwardsville and defeats to UT Martin and Austin Peay in the final week of the regular season that left the Redhawks out of control of their own destiny.
"You didn't find a way to be consistent," Patterson said. "It was a really tough league this year. Everyone improved. If you look at the final records, it was a tough league."
Then, of course, there was the ultimate high of securing an OVC Tournament berth. Although it required the help of other teams to do it, the ends mattered more than the means -- it was the first time in eight years that the Southeast women had made it to back-to-back conference tournaments.
Regardless of inconsistencies throughout the season, becoming a presence in the postseason year after year is a major step forward for the program. It was one of many things that Patterson would file under "success" in 2016-17. Others? Seeing Olivia Hackmann return from injury, show what she's capable of on the court and then return from injury again, even if the second comeback at the beginning of the conference tournament was short-lived; the development of Bri Mitchell into a leading scorer and playmaker; the record-setting 3-point performance by Hannah Noe; the opportunity to use a deep bench and get a lot of players experience on the court.
Things weren't, of course, all good. Patterson was not satisfied with the team's toughness, which let it down in some key moments. It became a major focal point for much of the second half of the season -- the Redhawks mantra becoming, "Extremely hard, extremely tough, extremely together" -- but was a constant internal struggle.
"There are too many times you go into the locker room and talk about how you weren't the tougher team, or at halftime when you can't talk about Xs and Os because you're talking about not being tough enough and effort," Patterson said.
"But on the flip side, there were many times this team could have folded for many different reasons -- injuries at the beginning of the season, not having enough players to practice, when Olivia went down, realizing (La)Trese (Saine) couldn't play.
"They found a way to rally around each other and I thought they were really good teammates to each other and they had each others backs. So even though things could have been disappointing, they found a way to have some pride and stick together and those are good things when you're building a program."
There were certainly plenty of challenges in 2016-17. With higher expectations after a pleasantly surprising jump in Year 1 after Patterson, Year 2 saw Southeast already behind the eight-ball, with numerous preseason injuries and a roster that wasn't fully healthy until a couple of weeks into the season.
Then, almost as soon as all hands were on deck, they started falling again. First came Saine, a 6-foot-4 freshman who appeared to have the makings of being a difference maker with her size. A stress fracture that had appeared during preseason practice forced the center out for good, as it was announced Dec. 2 that she would redshirt the season.
Six weeks later, Deja Jones and Hackmann went down with injuries. Jones missed two weeks, and both players were absent for a one-possession loss to SIUE and a winnable game against Eastern Illinois that went wrong.
Hackmann's injury, a stress fracture in her foot not unlike the one that forced her to redshirt in 2015-16, was far more serious, sidelining her until the very end of the regular season.
It's difficult not to wonder how things might have been different with better health.
Of course, the team forged back to the OVC Tournament -- even if it had to scratch and claw and cross its fingers -- in spite of those absences, providing an opportunity for the Redhawks to learn how to win without Hackmann and others. Those lessons may prove critical moving forward, because Southeast will graduate both Hackmann and Mitchell, the team's two leading scorers this season with 14.4 and 16.0 points per game, respectively.
"I do think not having Olivia for much of conference play has maybe taught them that you always have to be ready," Patterson said. "But look, we're losing two young ladies who could go get 20 (points) each night and rebound and create for their teammates. That's two 1,000-point scorers. That's a lot of points were losing. If we needed a basket, they could go make plays. We relied on them to carry us.
"But if those players are to look at [the seniors'] development throughout their time here, they can be excited about their development as well. Bri and Olivia put in a lot of extra work and time in the gym when nobody was watching, and they were rewarded. I hope our players can look at that and say, 'Oh, I can develop here.' I hope recruits can look at that and say, 'Oh I can develop here ... and come in one way and when I leave I'll be better.'"
When the 2017-18 season arrives eight months from now, Southeast will return four starters, plus a host of players who have a lot of minutes under their belts. In addition, Saine will be back in the fold and a little less green than a typical freshman, while Missouri transfer Carrie Shephard will be able to join the team for her junior season after spending a full year with the program -- she is, by all accounts, a potential difference maker for the Redhawks.
"I think those two young ladies will definitely enhance our program and I'm excited to have them on the court," Patterson said. "Sometimes with [new players] you're not sure how they're going to impact things, but with these two there's not as much question."
And after two years as a head coach, Patterson feels comfortable that the program has taken a step forward, even with the inconsistencies of the past season.
"I think we are moving in the right direction. Absolutely," Patterson said.
She points to avoiding the late-season collapse that hit the team in Year 1, a 6-6 road mark and strong fan support at the Show Me Center despite the squad's sub-par home record all as signs that the Redhawks are continuing to rise.
Although consistently inconsistent may be the best way to describe the past year of Southeast women's basketball, Patterson believes it will only help prepare the returning group for the challenges that lie ahead. Now the Redhawks know what it feels like to not take care of business and to have to get by on hopes and prayers; they've seen the parity of a tough, gritty OVC and what it took for some programs to ascend.
And, Patterson hopes, there's now an understanding of the importance of playing extremely hard, extremely tough and extremely together, because the honeymoon is over.
"I hope there's a little more hunger and a chip on our shoulder, which I felt like we had in year 1."
She won't however, look to make comparisons.
"It's just continued development. Everyone wants to win a championship, right? That's what everyone's goal is," Patterson said. "Ours is to build a championship program.
"Comparison can be the thief of joy. Have you heard that saying? Sometimes you can look at other programs and say, 'Oh, by Year 3 they were in the conference championship.' I'm going to try really, really hard to not do that.
"It takes time to build. You're not going to be an overnight success. I think you build with people and you build by getting better every day. You build by being able to look at the big picture and see improvement. So our goal at the end is going to be to get to Nashville, and we want to be in the top half of the conference. We want to be able to recruit talented young ladies who will take pride in wearing this uniform, who will give their best int he court in the classroom in the community, who will be role models and who will develop while they're here.
And who learn to be champions."