Cornell women’s hoops newcomers look to speed up team’s rebuild

The 2017-2018 season was expected to be a major rebuild for the Cornell women’s basketball team, following the graduation of all five starters, as well as seven of the top eight players, from a 2016-2017 team that came in fourth place and missed the first Ivy Tournament by a tiebreak. The Big Red’s conference record of 3-11 (7-20 overall) landed the team in sixth place, where they were predicted in the preseason poll. With a roster that has a years worth of game experience and a solid group of new players, Coach Dayna Smith is hoping for improved results in her 17th year in Ithaca and the second year of her program’s rebuild.

Statistically, Cornell has room for significant growth, since the team found itself at, or near, the bottom of the conference in nearly all offensive categories. The exception was offensive rebounding percentage, where the team was third in the league with a 35.7 percent rate. They fared better on the defensive side, as they were second in forced turnovers (17.6), second in steals (9.1) and third in fewest points allowed (63.9).

The Big Red lost three seniors, Janee Dennis, Christine Ehland and Jamie Hill to graduation. Dennis, a 6′ 0″ wing, started 21 games last year, averaging 5.0 points and 2.6 rebounds a game. The 6′ 1″ Ehland started all 27 games at forward with 6.8 points and 5.1 boards a game. Hill saw limited action in three games with 1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds a game. Additionally, Ariana Abdulmassih, a 6′ 2″ guard/forward who was the #65 ranked forward in the incoming Class of 2017 by ESPN Hoopgurlz did not play last season and is no longer on the roster.  According to Cornell Athletics, she has moved into a managerial role due to injury.

The team will be led by junior Samantha Widmann, an IHO honorable mention selection in ’17-’18. The 5′ 11 guard spent a good deal of time playing down low and finished the year fourth in the Ivies in scoring (14.5), second in steals (2.2) and eleventh in rebounding (6.9). Also returning are a pair of 5′ 9″ guards, Danielle Jorgenson and senior Samantha Clement. Jorgenson started all games at the point for the Big Red, averaging a team-leading 32.5 minutes and 3.6 assists to go along with her 5.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals a game. Clement started the final 21 games of the year at the shooting guard spot and was the team’s second leading scorer with 8.3 points per game.

Cornell will welcome three first years and two junior transfers to this year’s roster. Laura Bagwell-Katalanich, a 6′ 0″ guard/forward from Minneapolis who only made three appearances for Penn in her ’16-’17 first year, averaged 30.0 points and 12.5 rebounds a contest in her senior year of high school. In last summer’s announcement, Coach Smith stated that Bagwell-Katalanich “is a versatile face-up small forward that can score in a variety of ways and defend out of her area.” Caitlyn Smith is a 5′ 5″ point guard from Vero Beach (FL), who spent a year at Eastern Florida State College and a second season at Palm Beach State College. At EFSC, she played in 28 games and averaged 10.1 points (29.5 percent FG and 28.6 3 Pt FG rates), 2.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest. At PBSC, she started all 25 games and averaged 13.7 points (33.4 percent FG and 30.6 percent three point rates), 2.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Coach Smith (no relation) will be looking for the junior college transfer to “create off the dribble as well as knock down the deep three.”

Annika Hoff is a 6′ 2″ forward from Northfield High School (MN) who was selected as an honorable mention Class AAA All-State player by the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association.  The coach noted that “She (Hoff) is capable of finishing with both hands around the basket, moves well on the break, and has very good hands inside.  Defensively she has solid footwork and is a shot-blocking presence on the interior.”  Another new Minnesotan in the front court is 6′ 0″ Theresa Grace Mbanefo of Blaine High School in the Twin Cities area.  She has been awarded All-Conference spots in both basketball and track & field, where she excelled in the high jump, triple jump and 4 x 200 relay.  According to the coach, “Her timing and leaping ability are superb and she is a crafty scorer around the basket. Her speed provides an advantage in transition, where she is able to catch and score on the move quite consistently.”

Lastly, Samantha Will (no relation to Brown’s Taylor Will) arrives from Bishop Brady High School in Loudon, New Hampshire.  The 6′ 0″ wing scored over 1,000 points in her career and was named 2018 Miss New Hampshire Basketball.  In the April 2017, the Concord Monitor’s Jay McAree noted, “Will was a nightly double-double threat with averages of 18 points and 12 rebounds per game, showing off her picture-perfect jumper from mid-range, bullying defenders inside for rebounds and points in the paint and showing off her touch from behind the three-point line when necessary.”  This summer, Coach Smith echoed those thoughts when she told Cornell Athletics, “She (Will) is a versatile guard with the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish in traffic, as well as knock down the perimeter shot. She is tenacious defensively and can defend multiple positions with her size and footwork.”