This week, I had the opportunity to speak with Ke’Sha Blanton, the acting head coach of the Oakland women’s team, a squad that’s quietly become one of the must-watch teams in the Horizon League. From losing both head coach Jeff Tungate and star guard Kahlaijah Dean, to in-season roster departures, to playing – and winning – a game with just six available players, the Golden Grizzlies have powered through all sorts of adversity to rise to fifth in the conference standings with a 7-3 league mark. Blanton ran all of that down, as well as the experience of watching her brother, Los Angeles Rams tight end Kendall Blanton, catch a touchdown pass to help his team beat Tom Brady on Sunday.
HoriZone Roundtable: I’m speaking with Ke’Sha Blanton, the associate head coach and currently the acting head coach of the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. It’s been quite a season for Oakland in a lot of different ways, but through it all the Grizzlies have really started to make some noise and push towards the top of the Horizon League standings, winning five of their last six games. Coach, thanks for doing this. How you doing today?
Ke’Sha Blanton: I’m doing well. A new week, time to go, game on Friday. So focusing on RMU.
HZ: Well, before we focus on RMU, first we have to talk a little bit of football with you. Obviously, a lot of people in the Detroit area are paying attention to the LA Rams this season because of Matthew Stafford, but you have a much more personal interest in them thanks to your brother, Kendall, he’s a tight end on the team. Tell me what it was like watching him catch a touchdown in that fantastic playoff win they had on Sunday, that had to be just unreal.
KB: It was awesome. I mean when they snapped the ball, obviously, you see him in and you’re like, oh, he’s blocking, because a lot of times they use him as a blocking tight end and they threw a ball to him and it was unreal. So it was really cool to get to see him celebrate with his teammates and he’s worked hard. So just really proud of him.
HZ: Just knowing what he’s been through bouncing through the practice squad and all that kind of stuff that had to just be an amazing moment for him.
KB: Oh yeah, absolutely amazing moment. And it’s a great story for even my players to understand that, it might not always be how you want it right away, but if you keep working, you can persevere.
HZ: So jumping back to basketball, back in December, Jeff Tungate had to take a leave of absence thanks to his recurring back issues, and you took over as acting head coach. It’s actually something you’ve done before, almost all the 2019-20 season, you did that. But what was it like getting that news this time around and oh, by the way, you have to take the team to Las Vegas in a few days. And also the Omicron variant’s really starting to take hold and you’ll never know who you have game to game, things like that. So how was that situation for you?
KB: I mean, it was definitely just surprising. Obviously it came out of the blue and I wasn’t really prepared for it. Especially when, I think it was a day or two before we were supposed to leave for Vegas. But you know, I felt like personally I was more prepared for it this time than I was the first time. So a lot that we talked to the team about, hey, adversity’s throwing some punches and how are we going to react to it? It was definitely a hectic time, but I’ve got a great team, and they were ready to go, and a great staff. So we got through it together.
HZ: Is he still involved at all? Does he help game plan? Is he just a guy that you can call and bounce ideas off of, or is he just kind of focused on his recovery right now?
KB: Right now, we’re really trying to let him focus on his recovery. This was a really scary surgery, and it’s really important that his doctors needed him to recover the right way. Otherwise it could go wrong again. So we definitely talk and I’ll bounce ideas off of him, but he’s kind of just let me do what I need to do to push forward as the acting head coach. And we need him healthy more than anything. So we’re letting him focus.
HZ: I know early on, he said he wanted to be back for senior day. Is he still on track for that as far as you know?
KB: That’s a good question. I honestly don’t know. We haven’t really talked about a return or anything like that. We’ve really just been taking it day by day. I know, with his recovery, it’s been kind of up and down at times, but I know he’s working hard to get back. So I hope he can be there for those girls at senior night.
HZ: So you’re down a coach. And then on top of that, Kahlaijah Dean gets hurt on December 30th, she just returned on Saturday, but you guys really had a bunch of players step up and kind of carry the load as a group. You had a different leading scorer for every game KD was out. One game it was Kayla Luchenbach. Next game it was Breanne Beatty. How impressed have you been with the way your team has responded to that adversity?
KB: I was super impressed. I think when you recruit, you recruit because you believe those players can come in and make a difference. And sometimes it takes longer than others for them to get their opportunity. But I thought they were ready when the time came and their opportunity came to step up and really help this team. So it’s really been fun just seeing them evolve and seeing them step into that role. And just playing truly as one unit and not caring who gets the glory or who has the high scoring night.
HZ: I’m not sure there’s a better example of that whole team-first attitude than your game against Purdue Fort Wayne on January 6th, you guys had a total of six players. You very easily could have begged off and received a no contest ruling that game. But why and how did you decide to play that game?
KB: My AD is really great. I mean, he kind of left it up to me and he said, hey, this is an opportunity to get some players some experience that haven’t had a chance. I went to those six and I was like, let’s go do this. And they were like okay, we can do it. And so it was fun. It was a great bonding experience for those six, and even our coaching staff. And I think that’s what’s really propelled us to these last few games to have an attitude that we can get it done and really put in everything on the line every time we step out on to the court, that really helped us that game.
HZ: I gotta say I may have violated journalistic neutrality that day, because honestly you go in there with those six players, you’re down 10 after the first quarter, 12 at the half, I’m all kind of like, ‘well, you have to respect them for playing the game and giving their best,’ but then you came back and won the thing. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen in a while and I’m going nuts watching it. But what pivoted that game for you guys?
KB: You know, I just kept telling them, I was like ‘guys, we can win this game, but we’re playing like we only have six people.’ I thought the first half we were playing to conserve energy rather than leave it all out. And to be honest, Breanne Beatty, who we call Jack Jack, really just stepped up and she looked at the team and she’s like, we’re not leaving, like coach is right, we got to leave it all on the court. And they stepped up and made some big plays. She made some big plays, Sydney [Gouard] taking two big charges, and then they really rallied around the freshman point guard [Kendall Folley], and just gave her the ability to believe, and she made a huge layup and-one to really get us going. And then she found Blackwell, and they just rallied together. But I put a lot of that on Jack Jack that her attitude of ‘we will not be defeated’ really helped us.
HZ: I mean, there’s six players. You can’t really have anybody that’s not buying in at that point, I assume.
KB: Definitely. And I think they had that freedom of like, you can make mistakes, you’re not coming out, so just play free and let’s leave it all on the line. It was just a great feeling to something that, for the rest of my career, I mean, I will never forget. I don’t know if you have another game quite like that.
HZ: Tell me a little bit about how you manage lineups and rotations and things like that. In COVID times, you don’t necessarily know who’s even going to be available one game to the next. Do you sort of develop a new strategy every game based on who you have available, or are you just trying to substitute things as best you can? How does that work?
KB: I think you just kind of substitute things as best as we can. Especially with this team, I feel like what makes us different than a lot of teams is that on any night anybody can go off. So, if you only put six players on the scouting report, you might have seven, eight that you didn’t even know about that can be the leading scorers that night. So we kind of figure out who the hot hand in that first half, and then we go from there. And one thing I love about our team is the unselfishness and willingness to understand who is having the hot night that night and being willing to get them the ball, and just keep it going like that. So we just kind of practice with the ‘everybody’s got to be ready’ mentality and go from there, but COVID definitely makes things a lot more tricky.
HZ: So now you have KD back, how do you incorporate her? I mean, she was really going off before she got hurt. She put up 30 points every game, it seemed like how do you incorporate her production back into what you have going on without losing what you’ve newly found from some of the other players who’ve stepped up over the last couple weeks?
KB: I mean, I think her buy-in is really huge of like, we’re going to find the hot hand and we’re going to move the ball maybe in the first 20 seconds of the shot clock. And then those last ten, the ball is going to find its way to the hand that it needs to be in. And I felt in the Detroit game that she bought into that, and she’s a very unselfish player, so she’s never been the type that feels like she has to get hers. So I think now more than anything, she can come back and go into the flow, knowing that she can trust each and every person on that floor. And knowing that when the time comes that we’ll find her and we’ll get her the ball, but she can trust to get the ball to other people and they can knock down shots as well.
HZ: Now I do have to ask you about Olivia Sims. She was a promising freshman for you guys who left the program, entered the transfer portal last week. Was that just a case of a player getting to campus and maybe it’s not the right fit or is it just one of those things in the current climate, you know you’re going to lose someone every once in a while because of how open transfers are nowadays, and you just kind of have to plan for that?
KB: Yeah, I think you have to always be planning for it, especially in a team where you have a lot of players that can play and aren’t necessarily the same every game. You know, we were really sad to see her go. I think she’s a very talented player, but our biggest goal is that we want you to be happy in what you’re doing, and it was one of those things where she felt like it just wasn’t quite the right fit. And so we’re definitely wishing her well and we’ll be her biggest supporters as she goes, wherever she goes, and we’re excited to see what the future holds for her. But you know, as a team we’ve got to move forward and we’ve got to come together even more and just keep playing hard together.
HZ: So now we just hit the halfway point of the conference season. You’re 7-3 in the Horizon League, right in a position where you can maybe contend for a bye in the conference tournament. Maybe even beyond that, a title. You have one game left against every team, except obviously Detroit Mercy, your travel partner, you just played them twice. But where do you see yourselves right now? And what needs to happen over the next five weeks or so to maybe end up winning the league at the end of the thing?
KB: We’re just really taking it one game at a time, and that’s something that we’ve done all season is just focus on the opponent in front of us. We can’t look at what we could be. We have to look at what’s now in front of us. So the next goal is to get to 8-3, and the way this season has been playing out for us, when we focus one game at a time, we’re really, really good. Even in the NKU loss, there were a lot of lessons and learning in that game. So I’m excited. Part of me starts to think like, ‘ooh, if we can do this,’ but I have to keep my myself calm, just like I do our players. So just take it one game at a time and whatever comes is going to come. But as long as we do our part and keep working hard in practice and going out and executing, I’m excited to see where we end up at the end of the season.
HZ: Well, best of luck to you. We’ll definitely be watching and thanks again for doing this, Ke’Sha we really appreciate it.
KB: No problem, anytime. And I hope we keep you guys rooting for us even on a little bit on the journalistic side, you got to keep some journalist fans.
HZ: Yep. Our co-host Matt is a huge, huge Oakland guy. So I know he’s on board. I think the rest of us, you’re winning us over.