When the UAA women's basketball team takes the floor this week against some of the nation's top college teams, they'll need all the help they can get from two of the Kenai Peninsula's most prolific hoops products.
Junior Jessi Reilly of Kenai and freshman Whitney Leman of Ninilchik have been seeing substantial minutes so far this season for the Seawolves, and its likely both will play prominent roles as UAA goes into play at the annual Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout.
After two preseason games against Christian Heritage, Leman is fourth on the team in minutes played, averaging 27.5 per game, while Reilly is seventh at 19.5. Each made significant contributions in UAA's two wins last week.
In the two games, Reilly picked up five points and two assists, while racking up six personal fouls and a steal by playing her customary hard-nosed defense.
Kenai Central High School's Jessi Reilly jumps for a shot last season.
Clarion file photos/M. Scott Moon
Reilly was one of only five UAA players to appear in all 26 games last season, starting eight times. She's expected to be one of the Seawolves' most dependable bench players again this year after finishing second on the team with 2.5 assists per game, good enough to be ranked 18th in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Having already played in two Shootouts, Reilly is no stranger to facing Division I foes. She said Sunday that she's looking forward to having another opportunity to face some top-flight opponents.
"I would say it's a great challenge," Reilly said. "It kind of lets you know where you stand."
Leman, one of two freshmen on UAA's roster, was anticipated to have an immediate impact on the Seawolves' fortunes this season, and she didn't waste any time making an impression in her collegiate debut.
The 5'7" guard, who led Ninilchik to four consecutive 2A state titles and was named the state's small schools player of the year three times, pumped in nine points to go along with five assists and five rebounds in UAA's 59-49 win Nov. 17.
Reilly praised her new teammate for being able to step in and show what she can do right away.
"Whitney's been doing great," Leman said.
"She's definitely an asset on both offense and defense."
Although Leman was limited to just 21 minutes Tuesday night, she still had four points, four assists and two rebounds as UAA cruised to a 69-49 win.
Leman, Reilly and the rest of the Seawolves will need to play well in order for UAA to take down Division I Mount St. Mary's in Tuesday night's first round play at Sullivan Arena. But UAA, which is 21-43 all-time in the Shootout, should have a chance against the Mountaineers, who finished just 10-18 last season.
Reilly said the Seawolves have spent a lot of time preparing for what is expected to be a physical battle with Mount St. Mary's.
"We've really been on each other in practice," Reilly said. "Mount St. Mary's has a really tough defense, so we've been playing that style, trying to get everybody ready."
Looking to improve on last season's 11-15 performance, the Seawolves have a new head coach in Jody Henson and are looking to make a run at the top of the GNAC. Reilly said the enthusiasm her new coach brings will be a major asset for the Seawolves this year.
"I enjoy it. She knows what she's doing and she's really intense," she said.
Besides having Leman and Reilly on board, the Seawolves have a number of reasons for optimism, including the return of 2003 first-team GNAC performer Kamie Jo Massey and Juneau's Tanya Nizich, who scored 22 points in her season debut Tuesday against Christian Heritage.
In the other side of this year's Shootout bracket are perennial Mountain West Conference powerhouse BYU, which is coming off an NCAA tournament berth last season, and the Clemson tigers, who are looking to bounce back off their first losing season in coach Jim Davis' 16-year career.
First round play at Sullivan Arena gets underway tomorrow night at 6 p.m. with the UAA-Mount. St. Mary's game, to be followed at 8 p.m. by Clemson-BYU.
The losers will face off at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday for third place, with the championship game between Tuesday's winners to follow.
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