At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the Navy women's basketball team faced an immediate challenge. Navy hit the road to take on two teams from major conferences in a three-day period. Although the Midshipmen returned to Annapolis, Md., with an 0-2 mark following defeats at Wake Forest Nov. 11 and Tennessee Nov. 13, head coach Stefanie Pemper could see the benefits of the Nov. 11-13 trip.
"It gave us some confidence and an awareness of what we needed to do," Pemper said. "It was another step in the education of our players."
Since the early-season losses, the Midshipmen have been one of the nation's hottest teams. Navy has won seven of its last eight games, with the only loss during that stretch a 70-67 setback to Arkansas at the championship game of the Nugget Classic in Reno, Nev., Nov. 26. The Midshipmen's 7-3 record equals the program's best start since the 2013-14 campaign, when Navy went 24-9, reached the Patriot League championship game and appeared in the Women's National Invitational Tournament.
Navy, which bookended its loss to Arkansas with convincing victories against Nevada Nov. 25 (79-62) and Air Force Nov. 29 (64-46) on its western swing, has just two players taller than 5-foot-8 on its 12-player roster. But an experienced and balanced lineup has helped the Midshipmen overcome their lack of size.
Navy's unselfishness, as evidenced by their 178 assists on 274 made field goals (65 percent), has also been important. But the biggest factors behind Navy's improvement are a faster pace of play and sharper shooting. The Midshipmen, who finished with a 15-15 mark last season, are averaging 72.9 points per game on 42.8 percent field-goal shooting, a marked improvement from the 2015-16 marks of 55.1 points and 35.9 percent.
"We're definitely shooting the ball well, and we're employing a more open style of play that has allowed more shots," said Pemper, now in her ninth season at the Navy helm. "It starts with our personnel. We have speed and depth and good athletes all over the court. We have 10 players that can get a rebound and bring the ball up."
Navy, which posted a 93-40 win versus Division III Goucher during its most recent game Dec. 7, has relied heavily on the guard combination of junior Taylor Dunham and senior Sarita Conde. Dunham tops the Navy scoring chart at 12.7 points per game, and her 34-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio is indicative of a Navy team that doesn't make many mistakes. Condie, the team's top scorer last season, has contributed 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per outing.
"Sarita is a good communicator who is very unselfish," Pemper said. "Taylor finds her shots and makes them."
The team's most productive all-around player is senior forward Justice Swett. The 5-foot-8 Swett is Navy's leading rebounder, with 6.2 boards per game. Swett is averaging 8.2 points and leads the team in assists (3.5) and steals (3.0).
"Justice is a seasoned player who understands the lay of the land," Pemper said. "She's strong, has good hands and great anticipation."
Senior forward Ashanti Kennedy (9.4 points, 3.7 rebounds), junior guard Hannah Fenske (6.2 points, 2.7 assists) and 6-foot freshman forward Laurel Jaunich (5.1 points, 3.4 rebounds) have also made a difference. Jaunich, the team's tallest player, has started all 10 games during her first collegiate season.
The Midshipmen will travel to George Mason for their final nonconference game of the season Dec. 20 and visit Bucknell for the Patriot League opener Dec. 30. Pemper is confident her experienced team will improve on last year's 9-9 league record and sixth-place conference finish.
"We know that we have the talent, so we need to just compete every night," said Pemper, whose 155 victories rank second all-time among Navy's women's basketball coaches. "We have to value each game and work hard to make sure that we don't come into the [Patriot League tournament] as a five or six seed."