On Halloween morning, LaNay Larson walked into Kezar Pavilion followed by a cacophony of sound. The Academy of Art women's basketball coach stopped by the scorer's table and said, chuckling, “These girls are on one today.”
The Urban Knights had plenty of reason to be excited — and not just because of the breakfast of candy they had downed along the way. Practice provided a brief respite from midterms week. Later that day, many would head to the Giants' World Series parade.
“They enjoy being around each other, and I think that translates into great chemistry” said Larson, the reigning PacWest Conference Coach of the Year. “They can put aside individual goals for the ultimate team goals. They all want to be a part of something special.”
That “something special” Larson refers to is the upcoming season, during which Academy of Art is eager to put its stamp on the national NCAA Division II scene. The Knights return five starters and 90 percent of the scoring from a team that went 23-8 (18-2 PacWest) in 2013-14, reeling in the conference regular-season and postseason championships.
Junior guard Regina Camera (11.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists per game), an All-PacWest third-team selection a season ago, references the maturity gained from two straight NCAA Tournament appearances, cut too short for the Knights' liking. To wit: Those five starters last season, Camera included, were all sophomores.
“We've lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament twice now, and we're not going to do that anymore,” Camera said. “We're better than we've ever been. This year, we're really confident in ourselves.”
Larson's foundational four-player 2012 recruiting class (Camera, Zoie Sheng, Sha'Nice Storey, Jasmin Guinn), now juniors, has been bolstered by the additions of transfers Aleigh Krug (Portland State), Krystal Forthan (LSU) and Caron Brown (Southern Mississippi). On the current roster, there are just two underclassmen.
The addition of the 6-foot-4 Forthan, who became eligible in December, galvanized the Knights. Forthan (19.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 1.9 assists) ended 2013-14 with 16 consecutive double-doubles — often averaging more than a point a minute — on the way to conference Player of the Year and first-team All-America honors.
“She's a special player, a great kid and a great teammate,” Larson said of the former McDonald's high school All-American. “She's so unselfish, there's times we want her to take more shots. When she gets to her full potential, it's going to be really scary.”
The Knights were ranked 18th in a recent Division II poll. Larson has scheduled accordingly. After an exhibition at Nevada on Friday, the Knights embark upon a rigorous nonconference portion. It's the toughest slate Camera has seen in her three years.
Larson knows those tests will prime them for the NCAA Tournament.
“We've got all the pieces — pure point guard [Sheng], defensive stopper [Guinn], shooters and size,” Larson said. “Now, it's my job to make sure it all fits together. Getting to a national championship is a realistic goal for this team.”