First-year University of Cincinnati women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard inherited a team last March that was about to graduate two of its best players.
Senior point guard Ana Owens (11 points, 3.8 assists) and forward Shanice Johnson (10.4 points, six rebounds) helped the Bearcats finish 19-13, 10-6 in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) last season under former head coach Jamelle Elliott.
This season, UC is 18-9, 10-4 in the AAC under Clark-Heard so far. In six years as the head coach at Western Kentucky, Clark-Heard led the Lady Toppers to the NCAA Tournament four times.
Senior guard Nikira Goings, who led UC in scoring last year at 11.2 points per game, was key in shaping the team’s reception to Clark-Heard’s coaching practices.
“I’ve just bought into her vision,” Goings said. “Coming in, we all knew she was a winning coach. We did our research before she got here. Everyone told us how great of an assistant coach she was when she used to be here. It took a while to buy in because it’s hard to bring in something new and totally different from what we’re used to. Once we got used to her and the practices, it all fell together.”
Sophomore forward Iimar’I Thomas (13.1 points, seven rebounds) and junior guard Antoinette Miller (12.8 points, 5.4 assists) have transitioned into leadership roles this season.
“The players who returned this season have been the key to our success,” Clark-Heard said. “Losing [Owens and Johnson] was a big loss, and we knew we needed some of the people returning to step up this season. I’ve been really proud.”
Clark-Heard previously served as an assistant coach at UC from 2002-2005 under then-head coach Laurie Pirtle.
“The culture was great back then,” Clark-Heard said. “Coach Pirtle was extremely successful and became a great role model for me. She’s the reason I was able to eventually become a head coach.”
Clark-Heard has been pleased with her players’ willingness to buy into her coaching philosophies.
“All of the players have adjusted well to the culture change this season,” Clark-Heard said. “It’s not easy to adapt, but they’ve really bought into everything that the coaching staff and I have put out there.”
Goings, who is averaging 9.5 points this season after battling an ankle injury, appreciates Clark-Heard’s straightforward approach.
“The culture has changed tremendously,” Goings said. “The rules are different, and there’s different expectations that come with her being our head coach. She’s challenged everybody to step up and be better than what we were last year. Different players have stepped up after losing two people from last year that were major for us. Different people have stepped up, especially with scoring.”
UC women’s basketball returns to Fifth Third Arena Saturday for Senior Day against the University of South Florida Bulls. Tip-off is at noon, and the game will be part of the National Girls and Women in Sports Day. The Bearcats escaped the Bulls 57-56 on the road Jan. 30.