The Niagara University women's basketball team starts its fifth season under head coach Jada Pierce tonight at Little 3 rival St. Bonaventure.
After years of building, Pierce is especially excited for the upcoming season. She's working with her first group of four-year Purple Eagles, and she finally expects them to be comfortable her system.
Pierce prefers an open, fast-paced style, but she inherited a program strong in the post. After three seasons dominated by the inside presences of Victoria Rampado, Kaylee Stroemple and Sam Lapszynski — including a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year campaign from Rampado in 2017-18 — Pierce got the chance to implement system last season.
With a year of experience under its belt, Pierce expects this year's squad, an athletic group led by senior guards Jai Moore and Maggie McIntyre, to run its way up the MAAC standings.
"We were really young and learning our new system last year offensively and defensively," Pierce said. "... Now, we're looking at ourselves as the more-experienced group."
Moore, a returning first team All-MAAC player, took right to Pierce's system last season. She averaged 17.5 points per game, leading Niagara in field-goal and free-throw attempts by a large margin.
Moore said the team's increased comfort level has been evident in practice.
"I definitely can tell a big difference. Like, in practice along, more reads are being made, a lot of things look sharper," she said. "You can definitely tell there's a veteran group of there. People are more comfortable, and it's easier to bring people along with us with all the experience that we have now."
Pierce hopes a deep group of speedy guards will help Moore, a preseason first team All-MAAC selection this season, showcase a more well-rounded game.
"We do have a lot of people that can score," Pierce said. "We were able to put up a lot of points (in two scrimmages) and we think that we can spread it around.
"... I've never seen (Jai) this excited, as far as like, at practice, running up and down the court, since she's been here because she's kind of got like running buddies now."
Those running buddies include McIntyre, the Purple Eagles' top 3-point shooter. She led NU in assists (95), 3-point tries (215) and 3-point accuracy (36.7%) last season.
They also include sophomore guard Jordan Edwards, Niagara's "best one-on-one defender," according to Pierce, and freshmen guards Adia Brisker and Angel Parker, the Cardinal O'Hara product.
Up front, Niagara has a couple of experienced imported bigs who can keep up with the guards in transition and become focal points when things slow down.
Emerald Ekpiteta, from London, and Iceland's Dagny Davidsdottir will get most of the minutes inside. Ekpiteta, a junior, is a strong presence on the defensive end and on the boards, while Davidsdottir, a redshirt junior, can stretch things out as a threat from the perimeter.
"Emerald has really kind of began to come into her own," Pierce said. "She had some great moments last year and I think she's going to help us a lot defensively this year."
Davidsdottir is finally "really" healthy, Pierce said, after injuries cost her most of the 2017-18 season.
Sophomore Olivia Mason, coming off a medical redshirt of her own, will spell the juniors inside.
The Purple Eagles haven't escaped the injury bug this year, as sophomore guard Maddy Yelle, who saw action in 15 games last season, is out for the year with an ACL injury.
NU opens at 7 p.m. tonight against the Bonnies in Olean. It'll open its home slate at 4 p.m. Saturday with another rivalry game against UB.