By TOM ROBINSON, NEPABasketball.com
WILKES-BARRE – Jane Joyce and Olivia Hoffman made it back on to the same court one last time Sunday afternoon as college seniors with the first meeting of the Albright College and King’s College women’s basketball teams during their time at their respective schools.
When John Bucci decided it was time to take Backcourt Hoops in Scranton to a higher level of AAU girls basketball competition in the spring of 2013, it was Joyce and Hoffman who were the two oldest players on the first JB Hoops girls team.
As they move toward the completion of productive college careers, each remains in prominent roles.
Joyce is in her fourth year as point guard for an Albright team that has made two straight National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III national tournament appearances. Hoffman ranks second among active NCAA Division III players in blocked shots and is helping lead a turnaround at King’s in its second season under head coach Caitlin Hadzimichalis.
“That was like my first real AAU experience,” Hoffman, a 6-foot-2 center from Wyoming Valley West, recalled Sunday after scoring eight points and making two steals in a 65-58 loss to visiting Albright. “It was really physical and athletic girls.
“They were great people. I still talk to them now. There are a bunch of them in the area that we play pick-up in the summer with. That connection is still there. They all work hard and it’s great go see that.”
Hoffman and Joyce were the two players coming out of their junior seasons in high school when the first JB Hoops team played in the spring and summer 4 ½ years ago.
“I really liked playing with her a lot,” said Joyce, a West Scranton graduate. “She was a big personality on the court, keeping the team in line and keeping everyone’s head up.
“When someone was down, she was a great teammate.”
The way Joyce remembers Hoffman is the same way Hadzimichalis sees one of her two team captains now.
“She does so much that’s not on the stat sheet that people can’t appreciate other than her coaching staff and her teammates,” Hadzimichalis said. “She’s the vocal leader; she’s the emotional leader; she’s the intelligence leader. She’s on top of them in terms of scouting report and on the court in terms of energy and getting everyone going.”
Joyce was called on to lead as well when she was handed the ball as a point guard for an established team right from the start of her freshman season.
“A lot of leadership,” Albright coach Janice Luck said when asked what Joyce has brought to her program. “Starting point guard for four years now and just steady at the point guard position for us.
“Smart basketball. She knew the game. She can get to the basket. It’s nice to have her at point. She really runs the show out there.”
Joyce was a natural to be part of the first JB Hoops team.
“I knew Janey. She had played in our program a long time,” said Bucci, who watched his former players from the first row at Scandlon Gymnasium Sunday. “Olivia came highly recommended to me and I liked her size and everything.
“They played very well together. They showed a lot of leadership to a bunch of young kids. They took a chance joining a new program, giving us an opportunity to do what was good for them.”
By the time Joyce lost a significant portion of her senior season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, she was already a familiar face to many college coaches.
Higher-level AAU basketball was part of that process.
“I just felt that we were having so much success on the boys side, really pushing the kids that wanted to play in college toward that opportunity,” Bucci said. “I felt it was time for the girls.”
Even while Joyce was hurt, Luck kept coming to West Scranton to encourage her to play at the school in Reading.
“She was pretty good,” Luck said. “Recruiting her, I knew she would do well right away.
“She had some higher looks, but we had a starting spot open. It was a good fit for her to play right away. At that time, we did have some other upperclassmen on the floor with her. She fit in nicely and had a great freshman year.”
After 97 college games, including 95 as a starter, Joyce is steadily producing very close to her career averages. The returning second-team Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth all-star is hitting better than 50 percent of her shots for the first time in her career while averaging 7.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals.
Joyce is well aware that she is approaching the end of a career that has taken her to two straight NCAA Tournaments, including a second-round appearance last season after going 16-0 in the MAC.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” she said. “I’m trying to give it my all every single game, even if I’m not personally doing well, I try to do everything I can to help the team.”
Joyce was clutch down the stretch Sunday when she finished with five points, six rebounds and three assists to help Albright improve to 5-4. She grabbed an offensive rebound with the Lions up, 59-56, with 1:30 remaining and hit the first of two free throws with 19.8 seconds left for a 62-56 lead.
Hoffman has helped King’s match last season’s win total already during a 5-3 start and is pursuing her first winning season in college. She is having her best offensive season at King’s, hitting 52 percent of her shots while averaging 10.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 blocked shots, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals.
“I’ve always been known as more of a defensive player, especially blocking,” said Hoffman, who has started 79 of her 82 career games. “Now, stepping into this, I have to be producing more offensively. I think that’s coming into it more and more.”
Hoffman, the school-record holder in career blocks, was fourth in the nation in blocked shots per game going into Sunday. She had seven in 19 minutes in a 58-53 win over Gwynedd Mercy in the previous outing, but also has a 6-for-6 shooting game to her credit in a 77-52 win over Keystone.
Like her own game, Hoffman sees the King’s team developing more options.
“I see so many different possibilities, so many different avenues, so many different things we can do with our game and the type of personnel we have,” she said. “If we don’t use it, that would be foolish of us.”