Owls have strong leader in Imani Wheeler
Matt Gad—Sports Writer
Junior guard Imani Wheeler, a sports management major from Virginia, is very valuable to the women’s basketball program with her on and off the court leadership, experience and playmaking abilities.
“It takes a lot to learn and do the stuff on court … you gotta learn how to work with other people, with their strengths and weaknesses and I’ve been trying to be a leader and run the offense how coach wants it,” Wheeler said.
She’s been averaging 10.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game as a starter and she’s had breakout games against New York Tech, where she scored 17 on Dec. 18 of last year, Dec. 30 when she scored 23 against Dominican, Jan. 12 when she had 18 against Southern New Hampshire and then Jan. 23 when she dropped 22 on Franklin Pierce.
“This is the first time Imani’s really played a lot of minutes. She had [former player] Murphy Murad in front of her the last two years she learned from her,” coach Kate Lynch said. “Imani’s gotten better each game in a lot of ways and I’m looking forward to seeing her finish out the season and seeing her senior year, too.”
Wheeler has been getting a bulk of minutes as one of the team’s starters, along with seniors Allie Smith and Amanda Pfohl and juniors Aaliyah Walker, a transfer, and Kiana Steinauer,
“Physically, Imani’s really worked on her strength in the weight room,” Smith said. “She lifts crazy amounts from when she started just so she can finish around the rim better because she does drive [the ball] a lot. On the court, she’s a lot smarter … I’m not sure if that comes with comfortability or a higher IQ of learning the game more.”
Smith, like Wheeler, has been seeing a sharp increase in minutes this year as spots opened up due to then-seniors leaving the program due to graduation. Last year Wheeler’s season-high came against New Haven Nov. 29th when she scored 12 points and had three defensive rebounds but her career–highs have been coming this season since she’s now a starter.
“Personally, I’d like to eventually break the assist record … I was going for the steals but Kiana [Steinauer] beat that so now I have to beat hers,” Wheeler said. “But I just want to win a championship and contribute to the team as much as I can. I don’t care about my own personal success.”
Joan Van Ness had 15 assists in a game against Rutgers in the 1976-77 season before she had 13 against UConn in the 1977-78 season. Van Ness had 197 single-season assists in the 1976-77 season, 21 more than Nicole Grossbard, who reached 176 assists in a season in the 2015-16 campaign.
“[Imani] brings that leadership and she’s somebody that’s really difficult to guard so we do set her up off a lot of quick hits. She’s a great defender,” Lynch said.
Wheeler was on the team last year when they went 21-10 and had a dominant run through the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by Abby Hurlbert scoring 38 points in their semifinal win against Southern New Hampshire, the first 38-point single-game performance in program history since Lynch did it herself, against Saint Rose, Feb. 23, 2008.
“I wanted to be away from home and I liked Coach Lynch’s message of winning a championship,” Wheeler said. “I know they did that and I thought it’d be great to learn from their experience … I fell in love with the team when I came to visit.”
Photo Credit: August Pelliccio