TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Often when a team holds its first official practice for the upcoming season, there’s an acclimation period. The drills may be the same, but the faces are not. From the players and coaches down to the support personnel, the situation is never quite the same.
The opposite is true with this year’s Alabama women’s basketball team. When the Crimson Tide first hit the court at Foster Auditorium in late September, it was already a team and roster familiar with itself on most levels.
“It’s really a different pace for us because we’ve had such a great start with our summer experience,” Crimson Tide coach Kristy Curry said after that first fall workout. “It doesn’t feel like it. So we return a lot of experience, and we’ve had a lot experience this summer and fall. I think [in terms] of pace we’re at different place than we normally are this time of the year.”
The summer experience she referred to was the teams’ international trip to Canada to play three games and do some tremendous sightseeing in Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler, British Columbia.
The scenery aside, per NCAA rules coaches can opt for a foreign tour every four years and most wait until either their roster has a lot of turnover or it’s a veteran team that’s looking to take the next step. The latter definitely applies here.
The Crimson Tide returns four starters — sophomore guard Megan Abrams, junior forward Ariyah Copeland, senior guard Cierra Johnson and junior forward Jasmine Walker — and 11 players overall from the 2019-20 team. Among them are all three players who averaged double-digits in points, nine of the 10 top scorers and 84.4 percent of its total scoring.
Moreover, it’ll get some help from players who couldn’t contribute or suffered injuries last season including redshirt junior center Shelby Gibson (who had to sit a year after transferring), sophomore guard Da’Sha Benjamin (foot surgery), redshirt junior guard Jordan Lewis (broken wrist), and senior guard Amber Richardson (redshirted).
The contrast in depth is both startling and refreshing. In comparison, this time last year the Crimson Tide had the 11th-youngest team in the nation, and it limped to a 14-17 finish.
It’ll allow Alabama to play at a better tempo, get more players involved and take advantage of its experience. So the team didn’t just begin ahead of every other Crimson Tide team since Curry was hired in 2013, but way ahead.
“By pushing the pace, we’re looking to play faster,” Walker said. “I feel like we’ve grown as a team and are more mature.
“We have all the tools that we possibly need.”
It begins with the combination of senior guard Cierra Johnson and junior forward Jasmine Walker.
In her first season after transferring in from Shelton State Community College, Johnson led Alabama by averaging 14.7 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Her 457 points were the most by a Crimson Tide player since 2010-11 and she’s only one of two to top 450 since 1999-00.
Johnson was recently named by league coaches preseason second-team All-SEC. She's the first Crimson Tide player since Ericka Russell in 2011 to be named to a SEC preseason team.
Walker returns averaged 12.4 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds, resulting in six double-doubles.
Lewis averaged 13.5 points before being sidelined after just eight games and redshirting. That she had 10 steals during that time should result in some tougher defense, while Walker and Johnson were the top two players in defensive rebounds.
“Hopefully we can get the defense down and be resilient, compete at the best of our abilities,” Richardson said. “We have to get good stops because last year we were not as [good] as guarding 3-point percentage.
“I think we can be much better.”
Alabama’s other senior along with Johnson and Richardson is forward Ashley Knight, who has 94 games of experience. She’s second in career blocks at Alabama (169), and holds the second-highest career field-goal percentage (55.3) in program history.
The other junior on the roster is forward Ariyah Copeland, who led the Crimson Tide in blocks last season with 38 and notched four double-doubles. She averaged 8.4 points and 6.9 rebounds, which was second only to Walker.
On the flip side, all three new additions are interesting prospects, including freshman guard Ahriahna Grizzle from Toronto, Canada. She averaged 13.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.7 steals her senior year at Bill Crothers Secondary School, and also developed a reputation for 3-point shooting.
“Ahri brings size, leadership and strength at the guard position, “ Curry said.
Freshman guard Destiny Rice was ranked the No. 78 overall prospect on the ESPNW 100 for the recruiting Class of 2109. She once scored 57 points in a game for North Caddo Magnet High School in Shreveport, La., and set the school record with 3-pointers made with 10.
Sophomore guard Brittany Davis averaged 32 points and 11 rebounds per game in her senior year at Greenville High School in Greenville, Ga. She spent last season at Gulf Coast State College.
She averaged 16.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, finished No. 15 in the nation with 83 3-pointers made and had a team-high 16 points whole helping her team with the 2019 NJCAA National Championship Game.
“She is a dynamic scorer who can score at the rim, mid-range and shoot the three,” Curry said. The other new face around the program is Adrian Walters, who had spent the seven previous season at rival Auburn.
“He brings a wealth of experience in so many areas from player development to scouting, scheduling and recruiting,” Curry said. “He is one of the most passionate and gifted teachers I know. He will be a huge impact for our basketball family.”
The Crimson Tide, which crushed Auburn-Montgomery in an exhibition last week 105-16, will open the regular season at home against Hampton on Nov. 6.
Alabama was picked to finish 11th in the league by media at SEC Media Days, but this team should easily eclipse that. It has 16 games on the schedule against teams that player in last year’s NCAA Tournament, plus it’ll host Iowa State as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Dec. 5.
It’ll be a grind. But so will be facing this Crimson Tide team.
“We talk a lot about grit and gratitude and this team is one of the grittiest bunches I’ve been around in a long time,” Curry said.