Rekha Patterson was quick to say that she has barely scratched the surface of the work required, but her first nine months on the job at Southeast Missouri are plenty promising.
Patterson has overseen a remarkable turnaround in her rookie season as the Redhawks’ women’s basketball coach.
A program that hasn’t had a winning season in eight years, that was picked to finish last in the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference, that lost its leading scorer to injury nine games into the season, is tied for first heading into a showdown at fellow leader and league favorite SIU Edwardsville Wednesday on ASN.
“I feel like when you’re taking over a program that hasn’t won, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Patterson said. “You have to believe first. You have to believe that you’re good enough, that you deserve it because you’re going to work really, really hard. It starts with a mindset.”
Southeast Missouri’s (12-7, 5-1 OVC) formula for success thus far involves a lot of heart and determination for a team without individual standouts. The Redhawks defend and rebound fairly well — they are second in the conference in field-goal percentage defense (.387) and in rebound margin (plus-3.1) — yet do not have a lockdown defender or a top-five rebounder.
“I think we’re pretty good in transition. I think we can get some baskets that way,” said Patterson, a former assistant at Ball State and Baylor. “I’m still trying to figure out what we do well, aside from playing extremely hard, extremely tough and as a unit.”
The Redhawks suffered a difficult blow when leading scorer Olivia Hackmann (16.4 ppg) went down with a fracture in her foot in early December. Her return is uncertain. Suddenly, a team from which little was expected and its first-year head coach had to adapt and pull together even closer.
“We know we don’t have her,” junior guard Brianna Mitchell said, “so we all have to put in hard work.”
Nine players average double-figure minutes and everyone contributes. Mitchell averages 16.3 points per game in conference play. Forward Erin Bollman’s numbers (10.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) are up a tick in OVC games. Redshirt freshman forward Imani Johnson (11.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg in OVC games) and sophomore guard Ashton Luttrull (9.4 ppg in 14.2 minutes per game in conference) key a bench that averages almost 30 points per game and outscores opponents’ benches by 12 points per game.
“This season, I just feel like we’re all as one and we’re working hard together and we’ve got each other’s backs, on and off the court,” Mitchell said.
The Redhawks’ determination was on display in last Saturday’s 60-57 win at Tennessee Tech. They shot 29% from the field and trailed by 13 with 6:12 remaining. Yet they finished the game on a 17-1 run, with Bollman’s offensive rebound stickback the go-ahead points.
“Our young ladies never quit,” Patterson said. “They kept playing hard. We couldn’t get a basket to fall for us, but we found a way to keep it within reach, and some of them made some plays. They did the work, they absolutely did the work.”
Southeast Missouri hadn’t won more than 11 games since 2008-09, but has already surpassed that. The Redhawks haven’t won more than six conference games since ’09, the last year they qualified for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
Making it to Nashville, Tenn., site of the OVC Tournament, was a primary goal of the upperclassmen, said Patterson, who believed it more important to change the culture than to focus on wins and losses.
“I haven’t really changed my goals for the team,” Patterson said. “Whether we win or lose, we have to come back in and get better and prepare for the next team. I just try to give my best to my players and I know they’re going to give me their best, and we live with the results.”
Above and middle: SEMO head coach Rekha Patterson and junior guard Bri Mitchell. (Photos courtesy of Keith Hente/SEMO)