Women's basketball preview: Connors, Coppola, Davenport lead Bobcats into opener vs. Norwich

Bernadette Connors and the Bates women's basketball team open the 2016-17 season on Friday, Nov. 18 against Norwich University at Bowdoin. (File photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine -- A season ago, Bates women's basketball rebounded from a 3-9 start to win five of the last nine games of the regular season, including victories over NESCAC rivals Wesleyan, Trinity and Williams, finishing with a 9-15 record. The pieces from that squad remain nearly intact, fueling the Bobcats' prospects for a strong campaign in 2016-17.

Bates opens the season by co-hosting the first annual Marsha Graef Memorial Classic with Bowdoin, named after the late longtime Bates coach, who was Bowdoin head coach and Bates alumna Adrienne Shibles' mentor in college. 

  • LISTEN: Bates head coach Alison Montgomery interviewed on this week's Bates Bobcast

The Bobcats will take on Norwich University on Friday at 5pm to kick things off. The tournament moves to Bates on Saturday, with Bowdoin and Norwich facing each other at 2pm at Alumni Gym, followed by an exhibition game between Bates and Central Maine Community College at 4pm.

Bates graduated only one player from last season in forward Chelsea Nason, leaving Bates with a formidable three-player nucleus in senior captains Bernadette Connors (Windham, N.H.) and Allie Coppola (Tarrytown, N.Y.) and junior forward Nina Davenport (Freeport, Maine).

"Practices have been great," reported second-year head coach Alison Montgomery. "I think our team has made that shift to being really committed in the offseason. I think they're really prepared in their conditioning and strength. With me in my second year, things have gone much more smoothly, with the way we run practices and what we're looking to do, both in drills and the systems we want to put in place for the season."

Coppola enters her third season as team captain. With 701 rebounds to her credit through three seasons, the 5-foot-11 forward is on pace to break the program's career rebounding record, currently held by Oliva Zurek '05 with 885. She has also chipped in 9.4 points per game in her career.

Coppola has been an impactful player from the very start of her career with her abilities on the boards, and she has chipped in 9.4 points per game in her career despite a career field goal percentage that has lingered on the low side for a post player, at .412. "I told her 'You have to be a knock-down shooter, at least from 15 feet.' If she's going to have more impact offensively, she has to do that," said Montgomery.

Davenport may be Bates' most talented scorer since Zurek, considering her 5-foot-11 frame, her ability to post up or drive to the hoop and her three-point shooting stroke. In only 39 career games, including 15 as a first-year player, Davenport has already scored 596 points in a Bobcat uniform, an average of 15.3 points per game. Davenport was a First Team All-State awardee last season after receiving Maine Rookie of the Year honors as a first-year.

"We talked at the end of the season last year," Montgomery told the Lewiston Sun Journal, "and she got some nice postseason awards, particularly within the state, and I kind of said, 'That's great. But I think you can be so much better than what you were last year.'"

Connors made the rare transition into becoming the Bobcats' starting point guard last season, and emerged as arguably the team's most indispensable player on the floor. She posted career-best averages with 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

"She's so key for us," said Montgomery. "Her skill-set is so well rounded, and last year she was definitely our best option at point guard. It looks like she will have a similar role for us for at least the first half of the season, while we figure out what's going on with our freshmen. She just gives everybody a lot of confidence. She does everything really solidly, and I think everyone on our team perceives her as our leader."

Montgomery acknowledges Bates will depend on Davenport and Connors for a great portion of the team's offense. The Bobcats will certainly look to improve upon their shooting, an emphasis for the entire roster in the offseason and in preseason practices. Bates ranked last in the NESCAC in shooting percentage in 2015-16 at .335. In a related note, the Bobcats attempted the second-highest number of three-point shots in the NESCAC last year (571), clearing the previous team single-season record by 87. Davenport doubled her three-point shooting frequency to 8.4 attempts per game from beyond the arc.

"We're going to run a motion offense, so hopefully it feels a little bit different on the court for them, in terms of what their options are, and people can get their looks more in the flow of the offense."

In addition to the aforementioned power trio, Bates' starting lineup this weekend will likely include junior guards Lyse Henshaw (Brunswick, Maine) and Emily Freedland (Marblehead, Mass.). The backcourt rotation will include sophomore Madeline Foote (Duxbury, Mass.) and first-years Carly Christofi (Fairlawn, N.J.) and, when she is able to return from an injury, Melanie Binkhorst (West Hartford, Conn.). Frontcourt reserves include first-year Kelli Kennedy (Milbridge, Maine), junior Lexie Nason (Boxford, Mass.) and sophomore Linda Herlihy (Belmont, Mass.).

Bates plays its official home opener next Tuesday, Nov. 22, against the University of Southern Maine at 5:30pm.