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Women's Basketball Preview: Brown's back to lead deeper Bobcat squad

Senior captain Molly Brown averaged 12.5 points in 32 games over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. (File photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine -- Hyperbolic as it may sound, there's some hardwood truth in saying that Meredith Kelly carried the Bates women's basketball team last season -- albeit in an otherwise forgettable campaign.

While Kelly compiled one of the best individual seasons in program history -- scoring the most points in a season ever by a Bates player (518), leading the NESCAC in scoring by a 5.7-points-per-game margin, and also racking up steals, rebounds en route to earning NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year honors -- the Bobcats struggled to their worst record in head coach Jim Murphy's first 20 seasons at the helm, at 8-16.

Of course, Kelly has graduated, and only five players return from the 2013-14 roster. These are not natural components to a winning formula, but there is reason to believe Bates will be an improved team even post-Kelly. The two primary reasons for such optimism are the return of senior forward Molly Brown (South Dartmouth, Mass.), who missed all of her junior season, and the addition of nine newcomers, comprising a 15-player roster. 

For a team with nine active players in the second half of last season, the added depth is most welcome.

"It's nice to have 10 player to practice with," said Murphy.

Murphy begins his 21st season as the Bobcats' head coach with the 49th-most wins among active Division III coaches and a career record of 333-173. He's actually been coaching at some level since 1969, after his graduation from Bates, and never in his time has a sophomore been elected as one of his team captains. But alongside Brown, rugged sophomore forward Allie Coppola (Tarrytown, N.Y.) earned that distinction this season, and deservedly so, Murphy says. "She's a tremendous leader," said Murphy. "From hosting prospective students to organizational things, she and Molly have been doing a great job."

"Replacing" Kelly in the lineup with Brown is not an unpalatable exchange, if Brown can stay healthy. Both are excellent all-around players, and both have a way of speeding up the tempo of Bates' offense. 

Brown enters the season, however, with a mere 32 games under her belt, including 18 as a first-year and 14 as a sophomore. The last time she took the floor for the Bobcats was on Feb. 2, 2013, when she totaled 15 points and seven rebounds in an 82-77 win at Trinity, before she was shelved for the final three games -- her second injured stint of that season.

When she does play, Brown has been unfailingly impressive -- a very good defender and rebounder who really shines on offense. She averaged 11.3 points per game as a rookie and 13.9 as a sophomore, with highlights including a 27-point, 9-rebound performance in an 80-78 win over Wesleyan.

"If anyone deserves to play an complete season, it's Molly, with all the injuries she has put up with," said Murphy. "She can just do everything on the court. She's a tremendous shooter, she creates her own shot, she's a creative passer, a very good rebounder and defender. She is somebody who makes everybody around her better."

Brown will immediately become the obvious go-to player for the Bobcats, heading what looks like a strong starting five that has shown good cohesiveness in preseason practices. Joining Brown for the opening tipoff will be senior guard Kristin Calvo (South Deerfield, Mass.), Coppola, sophomore forward Bernadette Connors (Windham, N.H.) and junior forward Chelsea Nason (Boxford, Mass.). 

Calvo brings welcome outside shooting and point guard skills, having posted 5.6 points and 2.1 assists per game in 16 contests last season, prior her leaving the team to study abroad. Connors started all 24 games last season, posting 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds, with a steady all-around game that should only improve with her valuable first-year experience. Coppola was a revelation as a freshman, earning Maine All-Rookie Team honors after averaging 7.5 points and a team-best 7.1 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game. Nason, like Connors, started in all 24 contests last season, averaging 7.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals, and is always a threat to contend with, particularly when she is making her shots. Nason dipped from a 40.3 field goal percentage as a rookie to 28.4 last season, but has the form and athleticism to regain her shooting stroke. Murphy is obviously pleased with the continued development of all five of the starters.

"Kristin, Bernie, Allie, Chelsea -- they really put a lot of work into the offseason. You don't show that much improvement in one year without putting the work in," said Murphy.

Nason's younger sister, first-year forward Lexie Nason (Boxford, Mass.), is one of the nine newcomers who inherit great opportunity to earn playing time off the bench. Five of the rookies are guards, with Eve Zuckoff (Waban, Mass.) possessing the most potential to play right away. First-year guard Jackie Welch (Falmouth, Maine) has also been impressive in early practices but will likely miss several of the team's first few games due to illness.

Frontcourt newcomers to the team also include forward Kasey Hartung (Haverhill, Mass.) center Ashley Kulesza (Great Falls, Va.), with 5-foot-9 forward Alanna Morque (Rye, N.Y.) being the most ready to play right away.

"The kids are so eager to learn, and they're having a lot of fun at practice. It's been a good atmosphere," said Murphy. "We're undersized, so lack of rebounding is a big conern, but if we keep everybody healthy, we'll be fine."

Bates opens the 2014-15 season this weekend at the Rutland (Vt.) Herald Tipoff Classic, hosted by Castleton. Bates will play Elms College on Saturday at 4pm before facing Castleton on Sunday at 2pm. Elms finished 18-10 last season, while the host Spartans are 56-6 over the past two seasons, including a 64-62 win at Bowdoin en route to the Sweet 16 in last year's NCAA tournament. 

Bates continues a busy first week of the season with a game at Husson on Tuesday at 7pm, followed by the home opener against UMaine-Farmington on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 7pm.