For much of last season, it felt like Northwestern women’s basketball was missing something. With Alex Cohen graduating at the end of the 2014-15 season, Northwestern lost the only true center on the team, leaving the Wildcats’ without much help on interior defense or rim protection. But the cruel irony of the situation was that the Wildcats were practicing with a true center every day, only for that luxury to disappear in games.
It’s no surprise then that 6-foot-4 Alabama transfer Oceana Hamilton has started every game for the Wildcats thus far, becoming a key cog in Joe McKeown’s attempts to regain the form that led to Northwestern’s historic 2014-15 campaign that ended with a trip to the NCAA Championships. But for Hamilton, who has spent a year waiting to play due to NCAA transfer rules, just playing Division-I basketball again has her excited.
“I know last year we had some problems...we didn’t have much height last year so I try to contribute more defensively, getting rebounds and stuff like that, while also being a threat offensively,” Hamilton told Inside NU when asked about her role.
Hamilton’s modest explanation belies how critical her role will be for this Northwestern team. She’s already averaging over 20 minutes per game through the first four contests, and she will be expected to anchor Northwestern’s defense when the situation dictates, particularly in Big Ten play.
She won’t get the minutes of players like Nia Coffey, Christen Inman or Ashley Deary, but with Coffey unable to shoulder as much of the defensive load due to her skill-set and offensive effort, Hamilton needs to remain resolute on the glass and in the paint. Hamilton will also need to alleviate Northwestern’s struggle with poor starts in 2015-16, which haunted the team throughout the regular season.
Offensively, Hamilton has displayed to work well in the post and move effectively with the offense. But her priority will come on the defensive end of the ball, as McKeown attempts to limit the defensive problems the team faced during Big Ten play last year. However, as opposed to a true freshman like her teammate Abbie Wolf, Hamilton already has a wealth of experience playing against tough competition.
“I feel like when I was in Alabama, I got some experience playing in the SEC, and they had just as big girls [there] too.”
Through two seasons at Alabama, Hamilton averaged just 9 minutes and 2 points per game. She’s already on pace to double that output, and it certainly looks like that trend will continue throughout the season. Throughout her 46-game career with the Crimson Tide, Hamilton totaled 38 blocks. She’s already up to 6 in her first four games as a Wildcat.
“She knows our system. It’s her fourth year in college so she’s a smart player. I think that helped her, [as well as] being able to practice every day against Maggie Lyon, Nia Coffey...I think that prepared her for what she’ll see in the Big Ten,” McKeown said.
One wonders what last year’s squad would have looked like with Hamilton on hand, but the NCAA transfer rules are what they are, and at least she will have two more years to help out the Wildcats. But how did Hamilton go from Alabama to Northwestern, of all places?
“It’s a funny story, they (Northwestern) actually were recruiting me later in my high school days. They contacted me again and I was like ‘oh, I remember you guys’ and I started the whole process,” Hamilton said. She would have to spend a year on the sidelines, but Northwestern offered an opportunity to make a fresh start and eventually gain playing time with Cohen graduating. Hamilton’s commitment to her studies — she was named to the SEC Honor Roll and earned a Black Scholars Award at Alabama — made Northwestern a solid fit for the Communications and English double major.
“One of the main differences when I got here was how small the community was...there was more of a close-knit community around here,” Hamilton said. Although Northwestern is geographically closer to Hamilton’s high school in Ontario, transitioning schools is never an easy task.
“I give a lot of credit to my parents and my teammates. My parents help me out [by] keeping me calm and being there to support me no matter what,” Hamilton said.
As for the team, Hamilton is in a rather awkward spot as simultaneously one of the oldest and newest players on the roster. With the three senior captains Nia Coffey, Ashley Deary, and Christen Inman trying to their final marks on the team in 2016-17, Hamilton has had to determine her own role on the team, even as her role on the court has been firmly established.
“Either way when you play basketball, freshman are going to make the same mistakes. I feel like I can give my expertise there while also learning how the team works.”
However much she contributes on the team chemistry front, Northwestern needs the contributions of previously unheralded or brand-new players like Oceana Hamilton, Abi Scheid and Lydia Rohde if it wants to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. With Nia Coffey missing the last two games with an “upper-body injury”, the team needs its other players to step up in non-conference play. With a huge game against Florida coming in Evanston on November 25, we shall see whether Northwestern can fully utilize its talent and bounce back from a demoralizing blowout loss at DePaul.
Whatever the case, it looks like Oceana Hamilton, having gone from Ontario to Tuscaloosa to finally Evanston, will play a big factor in Northwestern’s immediate future.