SAINT LEO, Fla. – Staring down the barrel at the heart of Sunshine State Conference play, the 2013-14 year is off to quite a start for the Saint Leo women's basketball team. With a 12-3 overall record and an SSC record of 3-2, the squad is just two wins away from clinching only the season winning season in Saint Leo history; the first since 1998.
After finishing the 2012-13 season with their first ever trip to the Sunshine State Conference Championships, the Lions squad returned six players to their roster for the 2013-14 year, solidifying the team with six new additions.
This year began with the best start in school history, as the Lions tallied 10 wins before receiving their first loss of the season to top-ranked Alaska-Anchorage. A thrilling Sunshine State Conference victory over the highly ranked Rollins College Tars also made Saint Leo history, marking head Coach Nikki Jessee's 100th career win, an achievement that came over Jessee's alma mater.
Since December 12, the squad has consistently received votes in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) top-25 poll, and has seen the spotlight in the NCAA National rankings since early January.
In addition, the team regularly ranks among the top-100 teams in NCAA Division II statistical categories such as Assist/Turnover ratio, Field Goal Percentage, Scoring Defense, Scoring Margin, Scoring Offense, 3-Point Field Goal Percentage, and Win/Loss Percentage. In addition, the squad consistently ranks in the top-25 for Assists per Game, and Rebound Margin. Most impressively, however, is the ninth-ranked Field Goal Percentage Defense that Saint Leo operates.
Although the 2013-14 roster features numerous key returners such as Teresa Manigrasso (Sunshine State Conference Newcomer of the Year, All-SSC First Team, SSC All-Tournament Team, Daktronics All-South Region Second Team), Chelsea Connelly (SSC All-Tournament Team), Chelsea Williams, Keishara Green, and Kinnara Lewis, Coach Jessee feels strongly about the impact of her newcomers.
"Chachi Guzman, Melissa Jackson, Erin Higgins, and Ashlin Gross are four impact players who have added depth to our roster which we haven't had the last two years," states Jessee of the new Lions. "All four can score in a number of different ways, and Erin, Melissa, and Ashlin can play multiple positions which make them extremely valuable to our program's success."
Though senior Erin Higgins (Kenosha, Wisc.) was a member of the Lions' team during the historic 2012-13 season, she was sidelined with an injury for the majority of her junior year and has seen the bulk of her playing time during her final season with the green and gold. She currently leads the team by connecting on over 40 percent of her three-point attempts, in addition to shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line.
"Erin has been our secret weapon all year," says Jessee of the senior guard. "Even though she's still not 100% because of her bad knees, she is still one of, if not our best 3-point shooter. She gives us a huge spark off the bench with her shooting and scoring, and she can play the point or 2-guard positions. Erin is steady and doesn't get rattled no matter who we play, and that makes us very deep at times. She makes very few mistakes, and has an extremely high basketball IQ."
Chachi Guzman (Miami, Fla.), the team's 5-7 sophomore point guard, has made a huge impact on the court in her first season, shooting for 84 percent from behind the free throw line. In addition, she ranks second in the Sunshine State Conference with 83 assists and is currently tied for twelfth in the nation with 5.5 assists per game.
"Chachi affects the game in so many different ways, whether it's with her penetration in the lane and creating shot opportunities for her teammates off the dribble, or knocking down open shots from the outside," says Jessee of her starting point guard. "We finally have a true point guard and it's made all the difference. She's very good at setting the tempo for our team and dictating how we're going to attack on offense. Our team goes as Chachi goes, and many times for a sophomore point guard, that's too much pressure. Chachi handles it well, and for the most part, stays composed."
Melissa Jackson (Lyon, France) has also had a tremendous impact on the team's success, splitting time as a starter and coming off the bench to compete at the forward position. Averaging 5.7 rebounds per game and 2.9 offensive rebounds per game, she has a firm presence on the glass and contributes offensively by shooting 47.4 percent from the field.
"Melissa is a forward for us who can step out and knock down an open shot from the perimeter, and even stretches her range to the 3-point line," states Jessee of the junior-transfer. "She's a player who only has one speed, and that's to go hard, whether she's running the floor or crashing the offensive glass. Melissa is a tremendous rebounder, especially on the offensive end where she keeps plays alive by battling for every rebound. She has the ability to play the 4 or 5 positions for us, and because of that she is extremely versatile."
Finally, the addition of Ashlin Gross (Las Vegas, Nev.) has heavily influenced the Lions lineup from her position as a forward. In addition to averaging 4.2 rebounds per game and shooting for 64.3 percent from behind the free-throw line, she has competed in every contest for the Lions the season, starting more than half and averaging 19.3 minutes per game.
"Ashlin is a tremendous shooter who has deep range behind the 3-point line," says Jessee of the 5-11 forward. "She's only a sophomore so she will keep getting better and better as the season goes on. Ashlin is a long forward who is a tough cover because of her shooting. She not only can shoot, but she's also a tremendous passer as well. Ashlin has a high basketball IQ and understands the game, and because of that she seems to always make the right play at just the right time."
Along with Higgins, Guzman, Jackson, and Gross, senior Teresa Manigrasso (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.) currently ranks fourth in the SSC with 15.9 points per game, which leads the Lions' squad. Meanwhile, senior forward Chelsea Williams (West Palm Beach, Fla.) ranks third in the conference with a 61.9 field goal percentage and fifth in the SSC with 14.3 points per game.
Defensively, senior Chelsea Connelly (Morganton, N.C.) leads the Sunshine State Conference with 6.3 defensive rebounds per game, ranks fourth in the SSC with 1.7 steals per game, and leads her team with 7.8 rebounds per game. Senior Keishara Green (Quincy, Fla.) ranks fifth in the conference with a 55.7 field goal shooting percentage and second in the SSC with 3.4 offensive rebounds per game, leading her team.
Junior Kinnara Lewis (Miami, Fla.), the only non-senior returner to the Lions' squad, has also heavily contributed to the team's overall success, shooting for 85.7 percent from the free-throw line and averaging 5.6 points per game.
Freshman Gabby Ortiz (Orlando, Fla.) has also added to the Lions' success in her numerous appearances, and will look to further her contributions to the green and gold this year.
As a team, the Lions lead the Sunshine State Conference in Rebounding Offense, Rebounding Margin, Offensive Rebounds and Offensive Rebound Percentage. In addition, the squad ranks second in Scoring Offense and Field Goal Percentage Defense, and third in Scoring Margin and Free Throw Percentage.
In addition to their success on the court, the Lions finished the fall season with a team GPA of 3.48, the highest ever for a Saint Leo women's basketball team.
The squad will be in action on Wednesday, January 22 when they host the visiting Eckerd College Tritons in weeknight Sunshine State Conference action. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. from the Marion Bowman Activities Center on the campus of Saint Leo University.
For more on the Saint Leo women's basketball team, visit SaintLeoLions.com. Also, be sure to 'Like' the Lions on Facebook and 'Follow' Saint Leo Athletics on Twitter and Instagram.