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Culture change ahead for Lady Tigers: New coaching staff will look to make Clemson a winning team again

“We have high expectations for all our athletic programs, and we need a new direction and fresh perspective in women’s basketball.” 

This statement from Clemson athletic director, Dan Radakovich, explaining his rationale for the firing of Clemson women’s basketball coach Audra Smith, is very indicative of the winning culture that has become synonymous with Clemson athletics and the pressing need to bring the women’s basketball program back into that culture.

After enduring a frustrating 11-19 season, in which they earned only one conference win, the Tigers are in the market for a new head coach. Smith’s firing at the season’s end brings to a close an up-and-down five-year stint at the helm of the Tigers. Radakovich is now slated to lead a national search for a new head coach.

“We appreciate everything that Coach Smith and her staff have done for our women’s basketball program and for our student-athletes,” Radakovich said in a press release concerning Smith’s termination, “but the on-court results made this decision necessary.”

Once a very successful program under the leadership of esteemed head coach Jim Davis from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, the Clemson women’s basketball program has become a shell of what it once was. While so many of Clemson’s other athletic programs are experiencing national prominence, this team is being left behind.

The Tigers’ last NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2002 and, after winning just nine games in the ACC over the course of the last five seasons, the Clemson program is attempting a much-needed culture change as it seeks to regain relevance. 

Frustration has been a consistent factor for the Tigers in recent years, with injury woes and inexplicable stretches of poor play highlighting what could have been during Coach Smith’s tenure.

Last season was a particularly strange one that few could have predicted. Entering the season with the most hype surrounding the program in quite some time, the Tigers took a major step back just weeks before the regular season began as Nelly Perry, arguably Clemson’s best player, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in mid-October. 

Despite the setback, the Tigers demonstrated ample promise in non-conference play, earning several impressive victories including a thrilling 67-66 road win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in late November. 

But, fitting with the theme of recent years, the Tigers came unglued when the conference schedule began, winning only one game in the 2018 calendar year. 

Exacerbating Clemson’s struggles was the surprise mid-season transfer of star wing player Jaia Alexander, perhaps the most reliable scorer for the Tigers. Following her transfer, Clemson was never the same offensively and often looked lost with possession of the ball throughout the final month and a half of the season.

The Tigers experienced similar frustrations during conference play in 2017, as Perry and burgeoning forward Kobi Thornton dealt with lingering injuries that hindered the Tigers late in the season. 

Perhaps as a result of those frustrations, Smith was given a vote of confidence last spring by way of a contract extension through the 2020-2021 season. However, a year later, that contract has already been made null and void. 

In need of a spark, the Tigers could certainly benefit from an experienced coach with proven success at multiple stops, as Clemson requires a complete culture change if its winning ways are to be rediscovered. 

Seasoned seniors Ivy Atkism and Alexis Carter will not be back next season for Clemson, though point guard Danielle Edwards, the certified leader for the Tigers this past season, will return. Alongside Thornton and a refreshed Perry, she could be the one to help lead Clemson back to the Big Dance.

Francesca Tagliapietra, Clemson’s top deep threat, will also be back in the fray, as will combo guard Aliyah Collier, who was limited by role changes and injury struggles this past season. 6’4” power forward Tylar Bennett, a rising sophomore, could become a spark plug next season, as her size and athleticism make her ceiling rather high. 

Clemson was fairly young and inexperienced last season with several underclassmen on the roster. Therefore, a deeper, more versatile lineup should pay dividends for the Tigers in the 2018-2019 season. 

Three-star wing player Skylar Blackstock has provided the Tigers with a verbal commitment, and, as a freshman, she could certainly serve as a catalyst for the Tigers next season.

Even though the Tigers’ records of recent years might not indicate it, Clemson is remarkably close to becoming a threat in the ACC again. 

While the conference has definitely been the deepest and most talent-laden in college basketball in recent years, the Tigers are not as far off from joining that array of talented teams as their recent win-loss totals indicate. 

A change in leadership should aid the Tigers, as is often the case in college sports, but a culture shift is the best way to incite a winning pedigree. 

After all, with a storied and proud history like the one that the Clemson Tigers’ women’s basketball program boasts, a winning pedigree should be synonymous with the Lady Tigers year in and year out.

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