Catching up with #HLWBB’s departed stars

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The explosion of the transfer portal has brought plenty of consequences, both anticipated and not, with it. But perhaps one of the underrated outcomes has been the sheer awkwardness of player movement, particularly in a college environment. Players who are celebrated as stars on the court – and perhaps off of it as well – by a school can suddenly decide that, in some way, that school and program isn’t meeting their needs (and sometimes, they’ll even indicate that their former team isn’t successful enough, an indictment that stings any competitive person).

Those decisions typically don’t end friendships made within the team of course, but they do build something of an artificial wall between the player and the school. The latter goes from touting the player’s achievements at every turn to acting like they never existed, while the former will often identify themselves chiefly as an alumnus of their final school, even if they played there for one year and at the other place for four.

The Horizon League saw plenty of that awkwardness develop last summer when several of its 2020-21 conference award winners found new homes during the offseason. However, we’re here to help bridge the gap and celebrate those players (and coaches) as important parts of the history of the conference and their respective former programs, while offering a quick update on how the 2021-22 season has worked out for them.

HC Katrina Merriweather, C Tyler Frierson, and G Emani Jefferson

Wright State >>> Memphis

Given that Merriweather – the league’s reigning coach of the year – moving on to Memphis (and taking her entire staff and a couple of her star players along) was probably the biggest non-Detroit Mercy story of the Horizon League’s 2021 offseason, we might as well start there and hit everyone in one shot.

Memphis fell in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference to finish 16-12 overall, and at 143rd in the NET rankings their postseason prospects don’t look fantastic, but this season was nevertheless a huge step forward for a program that hadn’t seen a winning record since 2015-16 and bottomed out at 4-15 only a year ago.

Jefferson was a member of the HLWBB All-Freshman Team in 2020-21 thanks to her 8.3 points per game, and kept developing as a Tiger while locking down a starting role and averaging 9.4 points and a team-high 2.3 assists. Frierson, as she did at WSU where she was an All-Defensive Team pick, offered rebounding (6.1 per game, best on the team) and a reliable inside presence off the bench. It’s probably fair to say that both of them helped significantly as Merriweather tries to build a championship culture in the home of the world’s premier Bass Pro Shops location.

G Angel Baker

Wright State >>> Ole Miss

Baker, a first-team all-conference selection, became the star of the Raiders’ run through the Horizon League and NCAA Tournaments, including WSU’s upset of Arkansas in the first round of the latter championship, which saw her score 26 points and grab 12 rebounds.

Far from wilting under the bright lights of the SEC, Baker has thrived since moving to Oxford. She was the conference’s Sixth Woman of the Year this season, and also grabbed Player of the Week honors back on December 27th, after a 24-point outing against Texas Tech. She also popped home 20 in the SEC semifinals against top-ranked South Carolina and has scored 10.7 points per game this season overall, built on her usual efficient shooting numbers. Even more significantly than that though, she’s helped a Rebels team that was 7-23 just two years ago surge into national contention. Ole Miss is now 23-8 overall and a lock to grab an NCAA Tournament at-large bid on Sunday (they’re presently projected as a six seed).

G Mariah White

Cleveland State >>> Missouri State

One of the best to ever wear the Vikings’ green and white, White wrapped up her Cleveland State career with 1320 points and 230 steals, good for 13th and sixth in program history, while winning the MVP award in CSU’s run to the 2021 WBI title. She was arguably even more of a standout outside of basketball, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in math education and standing as the 2021 Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year for “exemplifying the standards of scholarship, athleticism and humanitarianism.”  

As a grad transfer into a very strong Missouri State program (coincidentally, the Bears were the team that ended the NCAA Tournament dreams of Merriweather, Jefferson, Frierson, and Baker in 2021), White has found a role not entirely dissimilar from Baker’s at Ole Miss. She starts about half of the time, but is most often a sixth player when the team is at full health, and averages 9.0 points and 1.6 steals per game. White dropped 14 points in a win over her hometown Toledo Rockets on December 21st (her father Kalvin played at Toledo as well) and has beaten that number four times as Missouri State has cruised to a 23-6 overall record. The Bears will enter this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament as the second seed, but are projected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, should they not win the MVC autobid.

F Mary Dunn

Youngstown State >>> Pittsburgh

While it wasn’t unexpected, Dunn’s departure as a grad transfer after five years and program legend status at YSU signaled a bit of a transition for the Penguins, or so everyone thought at the time. The positives to her situation are pretty easy to spot: the Washington, PA native got to wrap up her college career close to home (not that Youngstown is particularly far away) and by testing herself in the always-brutal ACC. She earned her bachelor’s degree as a communications and sociology double major at YSU and was an Academic All-American selection, and she will now be able to add a resume line from a second good school.

On the court though, Dunn only averaged 7.7 minutes per game as a Panther and despite a couple solid outings, including a 10 point, seven rebound effort against South Dakota over Thanksgiving weekend, she fell out of the rotation during the grind of conference play. Pitt has mostly struggled, often badly, in recent seasons, though Dunn’s veteran presence did help the 11-19 team to a six-win improvement over 2020-21.

F Nneka Obiazor

Youngstown State >>> UNLV

Obiazor, Dunn’s teammate on the 2020-21 Penguins, is headed to the NCAA Tournament after her UNLV team defeated Colorado State in the Mountain West Conference championship game on Wednesday night. The former Horizon League freshman of the year had plenty to do with the Rebels’ first NCAA bid in 20 years, as she shot 51 percent from the floor on the way to 11.2 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game.

Those numbers were good for third and second on the team respectively, helping Obiazor to further stuff her trophy case, including the Mountain West’s Sixth Player of the Year award as well as a spot on the conference’s all-tournament team. The latter honor was helped greatly by a 20 and nine line in a quarterfinal win over Utah State, and she topped 20 points two additional times during the regular season. The Rebels are projected to grab a spot on the 13-line on Selection Sunday.

G Kaela Webb

Detroit Mercy >>> Florida Gulf Coast

Webb began her college career at Providence, then moved on to Detroit Mercy in 2020-21 and became a third-team all-Horizon Leaguer by putting up 17.7 points per game…at least until the Titans shut their season down amidst the AnnMarie Gilbert allegations. That situation was certainly more awkward for the Pontiac native than most as her father, Tim, was on Gilbert’s staff.

Nevertheless, both Webbs ejected from Calihan Hall, with Tim staying local at Madonna University and Kaela landing on the beach at FGCU. While she only plays sparingly in her new home, Webb is part of a wagon of a team that has gone 25-2 this season while typically being ranked towards the end of the AP Poll, and they’ll look to make an ASUN title and NCAA bid (one that will likely carry a middle seed) official on Saturday against a Jacksonville State team that they defeated by 22 during the regular season. Incidentally, FGCU’s star player, Kierstan Bell, is a Northeast Ohio native, as she graduated from Canton McKinley High School in 2019.

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