EMERGENCE OF SENIOR CENTER BRYANT VITAL TO WOMEN'S HOOPS' RECENT RUN TO MARCH MADNESS
March 15, 2013
MARTIN, Tenn. – There Rickiesha Bryant was, standing about 15 feet away from the basket. Admittedly a little out of her shooting range, she had the option of passing the ball to her teammate Shelby Crawford underneath the basket, finding a guard on the wing or letting one fly from the free throw line. With a little bit of space, the 6-3 University of Tennessee at Martin center made the split-second decision to rise up for a jumpshot and as a Tennessee Tech defender contested the shot, she hit Bryant’s elbow at about the same time the shot found nothing but net.
There were a lot of shots made during the Skyhawks’ three-game run in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament – 79 to be exact – but none was bigger than Bryant’s mid-range jumper and ensuing free throw to complete the three-point play in the OVC championship game on March 9. That play gave UT Martin a 78-73 edge with 1:52 to go in overtime and Tennessee Tech would not get closer than three points the rest of the way as the Skyhawks clinched their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and third ring on Bryant’s hand in as many years.
Adding to the lure of that shot is that it capped off a perfect shooting night for Bryant, who concluded her day with an 8-for-8 performance from the field to go along with a 4-for-4 effort from the charity stripe. That resulted in a career-best 20 points and 12 rebounds in 44 minutes for one of the most clutch performances imaginable. It also earned her a spot on the All-OVC Tournament squad.
While most of the team’s attention deservedly goes to Bryant’s teammates Jasmine Newsome and Heather Butler – the No. 4 and No. 8 scorer in the nation, respectively – it is Bryant who may be the biggest factor in UT Martin’s success in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Likely to be paired with a top-10 team in the nation, the Skyhawks will need Bryant to utilize her size and defensive prowess to protect the rim.
Transferring to UT Martin after one year at East Mississippi Community College, Bryant has transformed into one of the most dominant post players in recent Skyhawk history. She started three combined games in her first two years, averaging 3.1 points per game. Although she wasn’t scoring at a consistent rate, there were signs of her potential throughout her first two seasons. She posted a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds against Tennessee State as a sophomore and turned in an 18-point performance in24 minutes against a much-bigger frontline of Vanderbilt as a junior. One constant that Bryant brought to the floor every outing was her ability to block shots, as she swatted 68 shots over two seasons despite the fact she was playing 9.5 minutes per game.
Her senior season would be different, however, as the soft-spoken Bryant let her play do the talking in 2012-13. The Miami, Fla. native set a UT Martin single-season record for highest field goal percentage (.643), converting 128 of her 199 attempts. She cracked double-figures in the scoring column on 18 different occasions – including 17 times in the final 22 games of the season.
Bryant corralled nine double-doubles down the stretch, all coming in the last 19 outings. She pulled down at least a dozen rebounds eight times and averaged a double-double in league play (10.5 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game).
In addition, she led the OVC and set a single-season school record for blocks, swatting away 85 shot attempts. She turned away at least four blocks in 11 games, including a near-triple double at Murray State (13 points, 15 rebounds, eight blocks) on Feb. 23. The eight blocks tied a UT Martin single-game record that had stood since 1986.
Her final season was punctuated with a remarkable effort in the OVC Tournament. In three games, she averaged 13.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per contest while shooting 77.6 percent from the floor (14-for-18) and 86.7 percent from the free throw line (13-for-15). She was as consistent as they come in the league tournament, coming up just one point shy in the quarterfinals of tallying three straight double-doubles.
With Bryant undoubtedly playing the best basketball of her career, the Skyhawks now boast a formidable inside-outside threat and loom as a dangerous draw heading into the NCAA Tournament.