Saturday, March 15, 2014

Stetson's Fresh Faces Helping Hatters to Success

As freshmen of course neither Amber Porter nor Brianti Saunders were listed on the Preseason All-Conference Team, but it is hard to miss them now.

Even ask their Head Coach Lynn Bria if she envisioned that they would have achieved their level of play in their first year of college basketball, and she answers unequivocally.

“I am completely surprised by what they have brought to this season,” said Bria. “First I would never have dreamed that we would win 25 games, and that they would have been able to contribute, excel and play like they have come in and played this year.”

Stetson’s dynamic duo has already been recognized as two of the top players in the A-Sun. They were both selected to the All-Freshman Team (Porter unanimously) and Amber also earned membership as the only freshman on the First Team All-Conference.

Together they earned eight Newcomer of the Week (Porter 5, Saunders 3) and two Player of the Week (each with one) honors while helping the Hatters to a record-setting season. Porter has become Stetson’s all-time single-season blocks leader with 118, and Saunders started all 31 games and also ranks among the A-Sun’s leaders in several categories.

There is no doubt that these two young ladies are talented individuals. But they also fit well into a team that was primed for success, returning a solid core group from last year’s A-Sun Championship team that included senior Sasha Sims, juniors C.J. Coddington, Cherisse Burris, Myeshia Hall and Jama Sharp. The abilities of Porter and Saunders, however, do not overshadow their teammates, something that Bria is quick to mention.

“Both were stars on their high school teams and everything centered around them, but on our team they are very unselfish players,” said Bria.

Looking back particularly on senior Sasha’s Sims freshman season, Sims will tell you that Bria was relentless to her freshman star. While Porter and Saunders would probably agree that Bria has not softened in the three years since, Sims would argue that she has.

And while Bria definitely disagrees that she is not tough with her freshmen, she points to the program’s progression since Sims’ first season in Deland as to why it might seem, to Sims at least, that she is not so unyielding with her future standouts.

“I don’t think I have ever been as hard on Amber and Briana as I was on Sasha,” said Bria. “But I think the difference is where the program is now compared to where it was when Sasha was a freshman.

“We weren’t winning when she came in and I needed her to contribute immediately. If you were to ask them (Porter and Saunders) I am sure they would say that I never let up on them too. I don’t think I treat Amber and Briana any differently as freshmen; it is just that the situation is different.

“We brought back a good core group with C.J., Jama, Sasha, Cherisse and Myeshia, so the situation that Amber and Briana were stepping into was something better, not as hard as it was for Sasha. Believe me, I don’t slack off on these freshmen either, and I am sure they would tell you that.”

Whether it is the team that is getting the most out of Porter and Saunders, or Bria, the fact remains that they are performing incredibly well in their first collegiate seasons. Porter is a force on defense, ranking fifth in the NCAA in blocks with an average of 3.7 per game, which is the best among freshmen this season.

Certainly not one-dimensional, Porter can also put the ball in the basket, as she has scored in double figures in 16 of the last 18 games. She leads the A-Sun in Field Goal Percentage (.550), and also ranks sixth in scoring and sixth in rebounds. In the quarterfinal game against Kennesaw State, she contributed 15 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks.

Saunders takes no back seat to Porter, as she started all 31 games and tallied double-digits on 23 occasions. She has scored 188 points in her last eight games, including 15 points with five rebounds against Kennesaw State. Saunders also ranks 10th in the A-Sun in scoring (13.1 ppg) and fifth in free throw percentage (.802).

Bria is both amazed and respectful of the pair’s ability to be so consistent and why it is that they can play at such a level in every game.

“They are producing at a high level, but they are still bonehead freshmen,” said Bria. “What I mean by that is they play with no fear. It doesn’t matter who we play, they do not get intimidated and they do not back down. In fact, they played one of their better games on the road against Oklahoma.

“They are so consistent because they both stay in the gym.” Bria continues. “Their work ethic is tremendous because they both want to be great. I have never seen two freshmen that worked any harder than they do. Briana will even come in after a game and shoot.

Even with these young ladies already exhibiting talent that will certainly benefit the Hatters for several years to come, the fact remains that they are still young players that do have areas for improvement.

“They are both so talented, and they have not even begun to reach their upside,” said Bria. “Amber needs to get to the weights and get stronger, while Briana will continue to improve in seeing the big picture of the game, see the game at a higher level.

“They both have also struggled in the area of communication. Bri says more than Amber, but not much. They are quiet players who just DO. Amber particularly is a quiet person and was not enamored by the whole recruiting process, she didn’t like it, and so she was a touch nut to crack.

But I do think that they will need to become better communicators as their games continue to progress. By the time they are juniors and seniors they will have the whole package and their work ethic will be so important for the younger players coming up behind them.

“They play every game the same, and that is where being a ‘bonehead freshman’ is a good thing. They don’t care if it is Oklahoma or it a conference tournament game, they play the same way every time and that is why they have been able to be so consistent and to reach their levels of success.”

For these “bonehead freshmen” and for the Hatters, the duo’s consistency has the program right where it wants to be, playing for a second straight A-Sun Championship. They have certainly impacted Stetson’s record-setting season, and according to Bria, might not even realize that they are playing for a conference title.

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