Charlotte 49ers women’s basketball coach Cara Consuegra made it clear that the 49ers will never settle for moral victories.
But when Charlotte dropped a 82-61 decision to South Carolina on Dec. 4, even the fourth-year coach and her 49ers found some solace in scoring the high number of points against the top-ranked team in the country.
“The biggest thing we said to our players was that if you can score that way against South Carolina and execute defensively, there’s no reason you can’t do that against everyone else,” said Consuegra. “That game helped us refocus and told us we can be the team we think we can become.”
Three weeks later, Charlotte was in the midst of its hottest streak of the season, winning three of four contests as it headed into winter break. Now the 49ers are starting the most crucial part of their 2014-15 schedule: conference play.
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Charlotte opens its Conference USA slate at Old Dominion on Jan. 4. Even though they won only four of their first 11 games, the 49ers are playing with their most confidence all season.
The loss to the Gamecocks early last month was the final defeat in a six-game losing streak that included three setbacks at the Triple Crown Cancun Challenge Mayan Tournament in Mexico over Thanksgiving.
Charlotte averaged only 53 points per game in the three contests, which included a 73-43 loss to Princeton on the tournament’s final day. Some of the 49ers took a hard look at the way their season was progressing, or regressing.
“I think those past losses, we weren’t very focused,” said sophomore guard Ciara Gregory. “We would lose focus on the game plan quickly.”
Everyone knew what a daunting task it would be to follow up the tournament with another road game at South Carolina.
But the 49ers played even with the Gamecocks for the first 10 minutes of the first half. South Carolina started to pull away, leading by as many as 25 points in the second half, but Charlotte never considered losing its fight.
Over the next two weeks, Charlotte won three of its four games by an average margin of more than 27 points.
In each of its victories over Charleston Southern (Dec. 7), Presbyterian (Dec. 18) and Davidson (Dec. 21) – all of which were at Halton Arena – Charlotte shot better than 50 percent from the floor.
“I believe we’re playing smarter now,” said senior guard Ayanna Holmes. “It’s knowing when to pull the ball out and when to go in for the score. It’s knowing game situations and personnel within our teammates and opponents.”
The 49ers are a guard-oriented team and will likely continue to be so. Holmes, fellow senior Hillary Sigmon and sophomore Lefty Webster are in the starting lineup and sophomore Gregory, and freshmen Griffin Dempsey and Amaya Ransom see significant minutes off the bench.
“Our chemistry is getting a lot better,” said Sigmon. “We started rough. These last few games have boosted our confidence.”
During the four-game stretch from Dec. 7-21, Charlotte’s post play became more significant. The 49ers outscored opponents in the paint 112-107 during that time, compared to their previous four games in which they were outscored 138-73.
Senior team captain Olivia Rankin is one of the forwards who has stepped up her game. Rankin averaged four points over her first six games but she has nearly doubled that (7.6 ppg) in her last five contests.
The 49ers follow up the matchup with Old Dominion (7-3 overall) with home games against two more of C-USA’s top teams: Western Kentucky (10-2) on Jan. 8 and Marshall (7-3) on Jan. 10.