‘We eat what we kill’: UH women’s hoops enters Big 12 hungry for competition
During last week’s UH basketball Media Day, the hunger and excitement from women’s basketball head coach Ron Hughey was palpable.
Entering his 10th season with the team, Hughey and the Cougars are coming off an AAC-runner up year in 2022-23 and are looking to bring their aggressive, full-court press style to tougher competition in the Big 12.
“Hear me clear: We eat what we kill,” Hughey said. “We play harder than a lot of teams in the country. I’m not shying away from that, every single day.”
With a massive year on the horizon with with even bigger challenges in talent and coaching, the Cougars have been spending this offseason preparing and trying to give themselves an edge.
Upping the intensity
The number one pillar of Ron Hughey’s UH teams is the full-court press.
The team’s possession-oriented, aggressive playstyle has allowed the Cougars to finish second in the country last year in forced turnovers and opponent’s three-point field goal percentage against AAC competition.
Now, as the only team in the Big 12 employing the press, UH is looking to use their defense to increase their chances on offense, where the team struggled mightily last season.
“Average game was about 81-82 possessions a game,” Hughey said. “We’re on track right now to get 100 possessions per game.”
Much like the men’s team under Kelvin Sampson, playing that style of defense and requires unrivaled ferocity and physical endurance from its players. In order to match the bump in intensity needed for the Big 12, Hughey has increased the intensity of the Cougars’ practices.
Conditioning benchmarks over the summer were raised, including a required 15-second improvement in the players’ mile times, and the overall urgency in practice and the season’s preparation was raised across the board.
“You have to have conditioning,” Hughey said. “You have to have toughness and you have to have that mindset to be able to do that.”
Despite adding six players in the transfer portal this season, this year’s team will go as far as its seasoned veterans take them.
With the return of vets such as senior guard Laila Blair, graduate guard Britney Onyeje and senior forward Bria Patterson, UH is looking to lean on its returning core to lead the way. In fact, it’s the growth of the leadership in players like Patterson and Blair that has Hughey so high on his team.
“They’re not letting those opportunities to step into that leadership role pass.” Hughey said. ” And that’s come with maturity, that comes with confidence, that comes with doing the work that you know you need to do.”
Meanwhile, Blair, who became UH’s first-ever All-AAC First Team selection last season, is set to have another career year after leading the Cougars in scoring the last two years.
“I suspect, Leila will have a tremendous season,” Hughey said. “And I don’t say that just to throw that out there. I say that because she put the work in.”
During the offseason, Hughey tasked each player with hitting 10,000 shots by the time the summer workouts ended. Over the eight-week period, Blair blew everyone out of the water by makes 24,000 shots, far and away the best on the team.
“That work is going to reward her,” Hughey said. “Once you put the work in, the work will come back to you.”
The Big 12 bump
Along with the elevation of competition, Houston has been enjoying an immense bump in interest in recruiting and amongst fans.
The prestige of now being Big 12 has given UH a higher level of respect from potential recruits that otherwise would have passed on the team.
“The one thing I love about it is the local kids are calling us and we don’t have to call them now” Hughey said. “We used to have to call everybody and call the AAU coach and the high school coach and all that. Now we’re getting all that interest.”
After the UH volleyball team set a school record for attendance at women’s sporting event against Texas in early October, Hughey has already noticed the rising amount of intrigue for his own team. Floor seats are selling out fast for women’s basketball games and the team is even getting calls to attend events that otherwise they would have had to host themselves to raise fan engagement.
“We are really getting great stuff. From all the tickets and everything,” Hughey said. “All that excitement that’s coming from volleyball, football, everything is already trickling down to us.”
Despite all of this forward momentum, the Cougars still have a chip on their shoulder coming into the season. Having failed to make the NCAA Tournament since 2005 and falling just short of the Big Dance the last three seasons, UH feels it will surprise many in a new conference.
“My expectation is to shock all of the people that didn’t believe in us coming in,” Blair said. “So going in there and not proving people wrong but proving each other, right; that we’re more than capable of being here and being great.”