Coaches love consistent players.
Coaches love outstanding players.
They also love hidden gems, at least when they’re the ones finding them.
Shereesha Richards is (or was) all of these things, hiding in plain sight for the UAlbany women’s basketball team that expects to win another America East championship and return to the NCAA tournament.
If 6-foot-9 center Megan Craig is out of the lineup, no problem.
If the Great Danes are playing the second-ranked team in the country, no problem.
If teams double- and triple-team Richards, no problem.
The 6-foot-1 forward from Jamaica hasn’t scored fewer than 19 points in a game this season, and is flirting with the top 10 in scoring average in the U.S. while firmly rooted in the top 10 in field-goal percentage. She averages over 10 rebounds a game. The 2012-2013 America East co-rookie of the year has five conference player of the week awards already in 2013-14.
The season she’s putting together echos to some degree what O.D. Anosike did on a regular basis for the Siena men’s team the last two seasons, the key differences being that Richards is playing on a championship team and is only a sophomore. That’s where the news gets better for UAlbany, because, as well as Richards is playing, they still see room for her to improve.
“It’s scary. I think she’s even going to get better,” head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said on Wednesday afternoon before the Great Danes got on a plane to play No. 2 Duke.
“She hit a three in the last game, and I was like, ‘Alright, OK, let’s start shooting threes! Wow.’ Because she’s just a winner, and she’s got this internal fortitude that she wants to be good. So she’s easy to coach, and she’s just going to keep getting better and better, which is really scary, huh?”
It’s no wonder that Richards still has room to improve.
Let’s start with the hidden gem part.
She’s only been playing basketball for four years, plucked as she was from the Jamaican junior national netball program and brought to Oceanview, N.J., to play basketball for Atlantic Christian School.
Netball is popular in the Caribbean and is similar to basketball, except that there are seven players to a side, no dribbling, a three-second time limit for anyone with the ball and no backboards on the baskets.
The athletic director and boys’ basketball coach at Atlantic Christian, Tom Piotrowski, spotted her at a boys’ basketball clinic in Jamaica — her school didn’t have a girls’ basketball team — and convinced her to come to New Jersey.
Richards was housed by Atlantic Christian girls’ coach Pam Hitchner and quickly caught on, despite having no experience with basics like post moves and dribbling.
By the time Richards was a junior, she was averaging 20.6 points and 12.1 rebounds a game at a private school that is not a member of the 433-school New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Her final college choices came down to UAlbany, Boston University and North Florida, and when the Great Danes signed her, Richards became the first athlete from her high school to gain a full Division I scholarship in any sport.
UAlbany waited all of nine months before deciding to retire the jerseys of Ebone Henry and Julie Forster following the Great Danes’ run to the NCAAs last season. They’ll do that in a ceremony at Sunday’s home game against Colgate.
Richards’ No. 25 won’t be far behind, although she still has two-plus seasons to determine exactly what her legacy will be.
So far, she hasn’t shown any lapse in a superior level of play despite being the no-brainer target for opposing teams.
“I guess from the first four games going in, who wouldn’t be like, ‘This girl scores this many points a game, we’ve got to key in on her.’ ” she said. “I had a lot of people before me last year, so obviously, they weren’t focused on me much. But this year, it’s pretty much me and Megan, so they know what I’m doing this year. Obviously, they’re going to change. I’m expecting the double-team and triple-team.”
Craig missed two games with an injury before returning to play 18 minutes against Duke on Thursday.
Richards kept the Great Danes in the game, scoring 20 points in the first half before the Blue Devils leaned on UAlbany in the second half to turn a 34-26 halftime lead into an 80-51 blowout.
Duke outscored the Great Danes, 15-0, before they knew what hit them in the first 4:10 of the second half.
Richards finished with 24 points, making 12 of 20 field goals while the rest of the team went 7-for-32.
With Craig out of the lineup, Richards had 21 points and 11 rebounds in a win at NJIT and 19 and 14 in a loss to Quinnipiac.
“She’s played great in both games that Megan was out,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “She’s still getting her numbers, but she’s got to play differently and we’ve got to move her around, so that she’s moving and not just down on the block where they can just go double her.
“So we do a lot of plays where we’ve got her moving, lob plays, and we’ve got her on the perimeter and back screening. She can move so well, she’s so athletic, and we throw her lobs. If Megan’s in, we’ll keep Shereesha on the block, because then they’ve got to pick and choose their poison a little bit.”
Richards can’t help but notice the extra attention she’s getting this season.
Last year, she could be the freshman with all that potential; this year, she has to carry a much greater load.
She’s OK with that.
“I’m always going to be ready to go out to do what I have to do to get my team where they need to be,” she said. “So, it’s pretty much what I expected, what I’ve accomplished so far.”