VERMILLION — Fourteen months ago, Tia Hemiller’s stat line in her college debut read like this: One minute of action, three fouls, zero points.
The Watertown native made almost no impact in a road loss at Cleveland State for the University of South Dakota women’s basketball team.
That was then. This is now. No longer a reserve off the bench, the sophomore is the starting point guard — not to mention an offensive and defensive spark — for a Coyote team that has won seven of eight games heading into Sunday’s Summit League opener at Denver.
“I like to get in there and be really aggressive,” said Hemiller, who Monday was named the conference Player of the Week. “I had to learn to be less aggressive now in college; don’t foul as much.
“But I love to rebound, love to get in there and make hustle plays.”
Her progression was evident in last Saturday’s 74-70 win over, oddly enough, Cleveland State. Hemiller recorded her first career double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The points are up, the rebounds are up, and the turnovers are down for the 5-foot-6 sparkplug.
“I’m not sure if in my coaching career, I’ve seen the turnaround in a kid that we’ve seen with her,” said head coach Amy Williams, whose team is 9-6.
“Even from our first game of the season, she’s controlling the basketball, playing smart, handling things and making big shots.”
For the Coyotes, such an improvement was necessary, with the graduation of point guard Alexis Yackley.
“I knew that since Alexis is gone, I had a big role and big shoes to step in,” Hemiller said. “So I got in the gym a lot, did the little things. I wanted to play well for my team.”
A big part of that was confidence, she added.
“Last year being a freshman, I was a little more timid. I just know that confidence is the key,” Hemiller said. “If you’re timid or make errors or turnovers. Just being the point guard, you have to be confident for your team and be a leader.”
That she has been, especially in the two games without leading scorer Nicole Seekamp (ankle). Another starter, Heidi Hoff, was lost for the season with an ACL injury, and another guard, Taneesha Greaves, is no longer with the team after an injury-riddled career.
Over her last four games, Hemiller has averaged 13.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.5 steals.
Perhaps just as key, Hemiller’s turnovers are down dramatically. She committed seven turnovers in the season opener (then followed that up with five), but has combined for just six over the last four games.
The combination of not giving the ball up and managing to stay out of foul trouble is a far cry from that Nov. 9, 2012, debut at Cleveland State, according to Williams.
“We definitely have made an improvement from that,” the coach said. “She does have a tendency to get a little over-eager at times, but she knows we need her on the floor.”
And when Hemiller is on the floor, she not only averages 9.4 points a game, but she ranks first on the team with 6.1 rebounds. Part of that, Williams points out, is that most point guards are running back down court on defense, but Hemiller does seem to have a knack for fighting against significantly taller players.
“We call Tia the little post,” sophomore reserve Margaret McCloud joked. “She runs in there and jumps. She even jumps over us sometimes.
“She’s one of our best rebounders.”
Not to mention one of the most energetic and intense players on the squad, her coach said.
“She definitely is a sparkplug,” Williams said. “She comes to practice every day with that, and I think that sets a tone for the rest of the team.”