They are like the rhythm section of a rock band that just rolls along.
Seniors Rachel Tecca and Hanna Luburgh have powered the University of Akron women’s basketball team throughout the season, one that didn’t start out as easily as many thought it would.
Tecca and Luburgh ended the regular season as the highest-scoring tandem in college basketball. Tecca’s stats improved over last year, a season in which she was named Mid-American Conference Player of the Year. Tecca, a forward from Archbishop Hoban High School, averaged 22.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Luburgh, a guard, nudged her out with 22.9 points and averaged 6.9 rebounds per game.
“I think we look for one another on the court,” Luburgh said of their chemistry, “so when Rachel’s hot, I look for her and when I’m hot she looks for me outside. It’s one of those things where I know she’s going to be ready to get the ball and be able to score in the post and we work well together.”
Add to the mix point guard Kacie Cassell and it’s not difficult to see why the Zips averaged 83 points per game in coach Jodi Kest’s warp-speed offense.
The Zips don’t try to beat teams with physicality. They turn the game into a track meet and hope their opponents pass out from fatigue.
It’s worked for them. UA is the fourth seed in the MAC Tournament, which begins today at Quicken Loans Arena. The Zips won’t play until 2:30 p.m. Thursday against the winner of today’s Western Michigan-Toledo game.
A comparison of last year’s stats shows that Tecca improved her scoring average by more than four points and Luburgh by more than six. They improved more out of necessity than design after losing forward Sina King for the season with a blood clot. King’s 15-plus points were going to have to come from somewhere. King gave the Zips some of that physicality. She could score, but she also crashed the boards and wasn’t unwilling or afraid of contact in the post.
“Last year we had Sina King as well so it’s kind of … it’s three people,” Tecca said of what the dominant force of the team was to be.
Luburgh stepped in to finish her thought, sort of like a twin finishing for a sibling.
“This year we had a little more responsibility and we took that on at the beginning of the season and fed off each other,” Luburgh said. “And now everyone is stepping up their game, we’re playing more as a team now and winning more games.”
Kest gave Tecca and Luburgh much of the credit.
“I think they’ve taken a big responsibility,” she said. “They just want to compete. They just want to win and so those two young ladies will do whatever it takes to win, whatever sacrifices they need to make.”
Their efforts are a big part of why the Zips were able to compile more than 20 wins in each of the last two seasons — one of those with a 13-game winning streak. They also won a program record 14 conference games this season.
Kest, however, said more than once during the winning streak that their season could have gone in the opposite direction.
UA opened the conference schedule with a win over Ball State then lost the next three — including thumpings at the hands of Central Michigan (last year’s conference champion) and Bowling Green. If those games were measuring sticks, the Zips didn’t stand very tall.
“We had to figure out who we were,” Luburgh said. “We’ve done everything we needed to do to win.”
The winning streak helped the Zips’ confidence and provided them steely resolve. This is a different UA team than the one that earned the fourth seed in last year’s tournament. Some will still call them a finesse team, but there’s no lack of mental toughness.
That toughness showed in the final game of the season against Bowling Green, a game the Zips ultimately lost 77-76 because of a couple of very suspect, momentum-changing calls.
Tecca sat for all but three minutes of the game with ice on her surgically repaired right knee — the one that took most of her sophomore season from her.
“I heard a pop,” she said.
Sitting out was not completely bad.
“I was kind of distraught. It’s Senior Night. It’s a game you look forward to all year and all throughout your four years of college,” Tecca said. “I was pretty upset over there, but I knew I just had to stay positive and cheer my team on and they did a great job and everybody stepped up.”
They took Bowling Green, the top seed in the tournament, to the wire without Tecca and it would be reasonable to believe they could have won with her. It doesn’t change the team’s seeding, but the Zips took something more important from the experience.
They’re a team. They know that if they play as a team, they can play with anyone in the conference.
That is something they will need to get past the Falcons and second-seeded Central Michigan, which is led by MAC Player of the Year Crystal Bradford.
“We just have to play how we’re capable of playing,” Tecca said. “We’re good enough.”
Luburgh repeated almost verbatim what her friend and teammate said.
“We just haven’t played to our potential against them,” Luburgh said. “We’ve shown that we have that potential. We just have to play up to it.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.