Head coach Jeff Cammon just started his fourth season at the helm of Long Beach State’s women’s basketball program. In many ways, his fourth year represents continuity. Every player on the roster was recruited by his coaching staff, the starting five has combined to make 179 starts in 263 games played among them, and a strong junior core of Ma’Qhi Berry, Naomi Hunt and Justina King are all–for the first time–healthy and ready to contribute together.
On the flip side, this college basketball season has been defined by delays, cancellations, and general uncertainty due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Long Beach State’s preseason schedule has been in constant flux, and even the team’s Big West slate was altered when CSUN announced it would be unable to field a team this season. Cammon said that the team has handled the adversity well, and that his players and coaches have had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of life outside of basketball.
“One of the great things about having to deal with this and having to make adjustments, is it’s right up the alley of how I approach coaching. It’s all about life lessons,” Cammon explained. “How can we approach this adversity and grow as people? It’s allowed us to really shine a light on what’s most important. As much as we love the game, there’s more important things like our families and the little things we take for granted. It’s allowed us to accentuate and build on our culture and things we want to do in our program.”
With several preseason practices being held outdoors, the team was impacted by rainy conditions, poor air quality from fires in the area, plus the ever-changing health restrictions to limit how much work they could do as a group. But through all that, Cammon said that his players have responded well to those challenges and have remained focused on the things they can control on any given day.
“Things have changed so much for us and we’ve dealt with so much change, it’s part of our everyday deal,” Cammon admitted. “No matter what, we’re going to make the best out of it, and I’m just grateful to have young ladies that have bought into it, haven’t complained, and they’ve just beasted it. That’s one of the bright spots of dealing with all this is how our players have handled this adversity.”
The Beach made their debut on the hardwood last Saturday with a 70-59 victory over Westmont, a successful NAIA program that took UC Irvine to overtime in their previous contest. The season-opener signaled the return of Hunt, who missed all of last season with injury after leading the Beach in scoring as a sophomore. She’s been an All-Big West selection in each of her two seasons on the court and should be a leader for the Beach in 2020-21.
“It felt great to be back out on the court after so many months of not doing anything and not playing,” Hunt said. “Just getting back out there and playing felt freeing.”
Hunt scored 14 points in her return while moving into ninth place on Long Beach State’s all-time leaderboard for made three-pointers, now with 114 in her career. At 6-foot-2 with a career 41.5 shooting percent from beyond the arc, she brings a unique set of skills that the Beach was missing last season.
“She makes us so much more dynamic and potent offensively and gives us the ability to play the style of play we want to play,” Cammon said of Hunt’s importance to the team. “I think she’s so disrespected in our conference. I don’t think they respect what she brings to our team, this conference and our program.”
With Hunt back in the lineup, Long Beach State has a versatile offensive weapon to pair with a veteran backcourt of Berry and King. Berry led the team with 71 steals last season while averaging 8.6 points per game. King averaged 13.6 points per game to lead the Beach in scoring, and was a Second Team All-Big West selection last year. Their leadership on the court will be invaluable during such a tumultuous season, and they’ll need to play extended minutes as the Beach begin the year shorthanded. LBSU had just eight players suited up against Westmont, but hope to have junior Kianna Hamilton-Fisher available to join the rotation starting this week.
LBSU is also awaiting the arrival of Division I transfers Myrrah Joseph (Hawai’i) and Kamryn Lemon (Oklahoma), who should be able to impact the program this season. Lemon will have to wait until the second semester to join the lineup, but Cammon expects the veteran point guard to make a significant contribution to the team starting in mid-January.
“She’s really good,” Cammon said of Lemon. “She’s a JUCO All-American, she started at Oklahoma, and she’s very talented. Our fans are going to love watching her play.”
The season opener also marked the debuts of three true freshmen for the Beach. Guard Patricia Chung led the way among the rookies with eight points in a solid 26 minutes off the bench, and Cammon loves the potential of highly-touted guard Savannah Tucker and 6-foot-4 post Danelle Arigbabu out of Germany. Both players missed out on practice time during the offseason and will need some time to work into the rotation.
But thanks to a collection of upperclassmen with plenty of in-game experience, this could be the year for the Beach to turn potential into production. Hunt says she’s seen an improvement in the team’s poise and confidence over the past few seasons, and likes the group’s mindset going into this year.
“We were definitely having fun and enjoying being back and playing,” Hunt said. “Obviously we’re thinking about COVID and being careful, but we’re not thinking that this year is any different in terms of competing. In practice, our effort and energy is high. I haven’t seen a drop-off in our attitude at all. I think we’ve handled the situation really well and I think we’re going to handle it well the entire season.”
The Beach will continue its season tonight (Thursday) at 6 p.m. against San Diego. LBSU is scheduled to open Big West play December 27-28 with a pair of home games against UC Riverside.