Of course, Keiara Avant would have liked to star from day one, setting Hampton University records and collecting awards by the armful.
But Avant, wise and patient beyond her years, knew her limitations and took the long view as both a student and an athlete.
"If I would have started freshman year, I don't know that I'd be the player that I am now," Avant said. "I knew I had kinks in my game. Ball-handling skills, defense, post skills. I had to learn some of those things before I could play quality minutes. I had to learn the speed of the game. It's all worked out."
Avant's career is a testament to patience and hard work. The 5-foot-11 senior and newly-minted Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year is one of the leaders as the top-seeded Lady Pirates (25-5, 16-0 MEAC) aim for a fourth consecutive tournament title and NCAA berth.
HU's quest begins Wednesday at noon at the Norfolk Scope, in a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of the Bethune-Cookman-Delaware State game.
"She's always had the potential," HU coach David Six said. "For her, it's been a matter of consistency. It's been interesting to watch her development and her roles change, from a supplemental role to a go-to player, from a player who hung around the basket to one that we're running plays for."
Avant led the MEAC in rebounding (10.3 rpg) and was fifth in scoring (16.3 ppg), more than doubling her scoring average from last season's 7.7. She recorded 19 double-doubles this season, fifth in the nation. The young woman who averaged a modest 1.9 points per game as a freshman became the Lady Pirates' first conference Player of the Year.
She is a classic 'tweener without a true position, which she uses to her advantage. She's shorter and quicker than most post players, taller and stronger than most guards.
Much of Avant's productivity comes from effort. She always seems a few rpm's quicker than those around her, particularly around the basket. She often grabs a rebound or gathers and shoots before others react. She's also quick enough to defend on the perimeter and routinely gets her hands on balls in passing lanes.
"When she's in the post, she can go outside and shoot," teammate Nicole Hamilton said. "If they play out on her, she goes right by them."
How difficult is Avant to check in practice?
"Oh, I shut her down," Hamilton said playfully.
If that's accurate, she's one of the few who does.
"It's hard to stop her," Six said, "because she creates her own opportunities. She's such a great offensive rebounder."
Avant's 127 offensive rebounds and 4.2 average are seven-tenths per game better than runner-up Rachel Gordon of Norfolk State. Only seven players in the entire conference have more defensive rebounds than she has offensive boards.
"My role is to bring a lot of energy and lot of focus every night," Avant said. "I want to be a high-intensity player. I don't want to take any plays off. I feel like I should set an example."
Avant has expanded her game since she arrived from Chesapeake's Indian River High in 2009. She has developed a solid mid-range jump shot. She is a decent ballhandler and effectively fills a lane on fast breaks. She has become a better position defender and leads HU in steals.
"I try to play whatever role I can fill that night," Avant said. "If I need to be a point guard or a center, whatever I can do. If they need me to be a rebounder or a scorer, I'll do that, too."
Avant provided an extended glimpse into her senior year at the end of last season. She started the final eight games, and in her second outing, had 18 points and 17 rebounds in a 46-43 win against Florida A&M. She averaged 10.6 points and 10.1 rebounds over the season-ending stretch.
"She knows that my expectations are high for her," Six said. "But I know that the biggest thing about her is that she wants to win. That's like me. If you're on the same page, it makes it much easier to succeed."
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