Update Jan. 20: The No. 3 Huskies beat Cincinnati 80-37 on Thursday, led by senior Tiffany Hayes ’12 (CLAS), who scored 17 points and had 7 rebounds. Bearcats head coach Jamelle Elliott ’96 (ED), ’97 MA said she is satisfied that her team is continuing to make progress this season. “I think pretty much our confidence is still intact, and every game, I’ve been able to write something on the board that we are getting better at,” she told reporters after the game. “I thought our transition defense was pretty good against a team that really, really looks to get out and run.”
During her playing days at UConn, Jamelle Elliott ’96 (ED), ’97 MA was the kind of student-athlete women’s head basketball coach Geno Auriemma wanted to help build his emerging program. She worked hard in practice, was determined to win, and relished a challenge.
“Jamelle was a 5-10 post player that won a national championship and outplayed kids bigger than her every night for four years,” Auriemma says. “She never, ever has looked at something and said, ‘I can’t do that.’ She thrives on the process of trying to do something people think can’t be done.”
Elliott was a key member of the Huskies’ undefeated 1995 championship team and became only the second player in UConn history to surpass both the 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounding milestones. She then spent 12 years as an assistant coach in Storrs, helping the Huskies to win five more national championships.
Now in her third season as head coach of Cincinnati, Elliott returns Jan. 19 to Harry A. Gampel Pavilion with a young Bearcats team that ran off six consecutive wins to start the season and won the Hilton Garden Inn Hokie Classic at Virginia Tech in late December. As is the case with most teams, especially young squads, the Big East schedule will be a challenge, with six nationally ranked teams in the conference, including the No. 3 Huskies (15-2, 3-1 Big East), who are coming off a nationally televised 86-35 win over No. 24 North Carolina.
Elliott’s team (9-8, 0-4 Big East) has become more competitive over the past two seasons, ranking in the conference’s Top 10 defensive categories while trying to improve its offensive output. Cincinnati is narrowing its point differential, scoring an average of 60.1 points per game and giving up 53.1 points.
The Bearcats are led by two guards, junior Dayeesha Hollins (14.6 points per game, 4.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists) and senior Bjonee Reaves (13.2, 4.3, 3.4), with solid support from sophomore forward Tiffany Turner (8.7 points, 7.5 rebounds).
“This is a tough conference, a defensive-oriented conference. I think we’re a much more rounded team than last year, when we depended on one player to put up points,” Elliott says. “This year we’ve got three of our guys capable of putting up 14, 15, or 16 points a game. I’m hoping that’s going to help us in conference play, because we don’t need to have one guy to depend on to score points.”
Against Big East teams, Elliott’s team has improved its performance this season, playing No. 10 Rutgers to within 11 points, No. 16 Louisville within five, and South Florida within three.
“Even though you don’t want to talk about moral victories, we’ve been in every single game,” Elliott says. “We’re competing for 40 minutes a game. I just hope we can turn the corner. My kids are working hard and they deserve it. I’m hoping we’ll re-energize for the back end of the conference play and hopefully get a couple of W’s toward the end of the Big East season.”
Going through a losing season was a new experience for Elliott, just as it was for her teammate on the Huskies’ 1995 Championship team Jennifer Rizzotti ’96 (CLAS), who has established her University of Hartford team as a nationally recognized program in the America East Conference. The Hawks have won regular season titles, tournament championships, and have made six trips to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the two former Huskies spent time together at a seminar for Division I coaches conducted by the Center for Coaching Excellence.
“One of the things we talked about is letting go of losses and tough times and being able to move on quicker,” Rizzotti says. “Jamelle knows as much as I do that you learn from losses, and you’ve got to have the right kids [in your program]. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, you need the right kids. At the end of the day, you know you’ve given them everything you could and they value their experience. When you’re starting a program, worrying about wins and losses you sometimes lose sight of that.”
Auriemma says the Big East is so competitive that it takes time for even established teams to become a regular contender against the leading programs in the conference, and it is even more challenging to rebuild a struggling program.
“The biggest thing is Jamelle has created a culture where I think the kids are doing the things she wants them to do,” he says. “Are they doing those things as well as she wants them to? Probably not, but she has started the process. It’s just going to take a little bit longer, probably another couple of recruiting classes. A little bit makes a big difference in our league. I would hope they get a couple of breaks here and there and knock off a couple of people. That’s usually what it takes. “
Elliott agrees that she is adjusting to life as a head coach, where she has all the responsibility for her program, has to make every decision, and is expected to have all the answers.
“I chose to be a head coach in the best conference in the country, so I knew what I had to expect, playing against quality teams in the country night in and night out,” she says. “Coming from the program I came from, it’s been a little bit of an adjustment to lose the number of ball games I’ve lost, but that’s allowing me to be a better coach and continue to study the game and get the most out of my players. My job is to make sure I build a solid foundation, trying to do things the right way, work hard, and have that carry over to everybody that’s involved in my program.”
When she walked out on the floor of Gampel Pavilion for the first time as a head coach in 2010, Elliott was greeted warmly with applause from the fans who cheered her as both a Husky player and coach. She will likely receive the same reception on Thursday, even as she focuses on preparing her own team for playing in Storrs. Owing to alternating home games in the conference, along with previous injuries, no member of the current Bearcat team has ever experienced the challenge of playing at Gampel.
“One of the things teams do when they come to Storrs, and I’ve witnessed that as a coach, is they get so caught up in the accolades [of UConn], a lot of times they lose the game before the ball actually is tipped,” Elliott says. “I want them to admire it, look at all the history and tradition that UConn has brought to women’s basketball, but once they do that, I want them to actually compete and not get caught up in it.”
For Elliott the game is a homecoming, one that she will enjoy even as she tries to win a basketball game against her mentor.
“It’s always good to come home,” she says. “I’m looking forward to coming back, seeing friends and family, and hopefully giving them a competitive game for as long as we can.”