MURRAY -- It's no secret; this past off-season was a trying time for third-year coach Rechelle Turner and the Murray State women's basketball program.
Three of the team's would-be key returners -- forward Evelyn Adebayo, point guard Janika Griffith-Wallace and forward Brianna Crane -- instead opted to transfer to other programs. Adebayo teamed up with Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut, one of the best teams in the country. Griffith-Wallace: Virginia Commonwealth University, an A-10 power. Crane: University of Arkansas-Little Rock, a perennial contender in the Sun Belt.
Another reserve, Paige Barrett, got closer to home and moved to the University of Indianapolis.
The mass exodus seemed strange, at first. After all, this was a program coming off of a season in which it was picked last in the conference, and instead finished sixth and made the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for the second-straight year.
Adebayo contended for OVC Player of the Year. Crane and Griffith-Wallace showed intrepid growth, particularly on offense. Barrett played limited minutes, but appeared in 17 games and provided depth.
Turner clearly reflected on this throughout the summer, in which she and her staff had to redouble efforts in recruitment and snag three junior college players -- guards G'Torria Swinton and Ashley Hunter, and forward Laci Hawthorne -- to group with their Class of 2019 freshmen in Allen County-Scottsville star Sarah Sutton, Richmond native Lauren Jackson and Neelyville, Missouri native Jentri Worley.
"Well, for me, you sit back and do a lot of reflecting on what we could've done to keep those kids in the program," Turner said. "But when you look at where these kids transferred to, there's more money. More opportunity. Bigger conferences. And in the transfer portal, all that stuff is being thrown out. Cost of attendance is going up. And you look at these kids and you say, 'You've got to do what's best for you. We want you to be here, but if this is going to better your life in any way. ...'
"And if I'm the coach and the person I claim to be, then I'm going to tell that kid to make the best decision for them. So as a coach you look and say, 'What could you have done differently?' But when you actually sit down and compare apples to oranges, you understand that there may not've been anything you could do here, because things added up on the other options."
Alongside MSU's six new faces are seven returners, including 2019 OVC Freshman of the Year and starting point guard Macey Turley and lone senior forward Cekeya Mack. Turley is part of a sophomore class that also includes Alexis Burpo, Lex Mayes, Sadie Hill and Reagan Blackburn, and it's a place Turner will have to rely on to set the program standard.
Macie Gibson, now a redshirt-freshman and also an Owsley County native, is healthy after a freak ACL injury shortened her 2018-19 season. This is Murray State's roster, and one Turner hopes can go nine players deep by the time conference play arrives in January 2020.
"I go to myself first, and then reassure to the team that it's not anything they did or didn't do," Turner added, regarding transfers. "And then we just pull and rally together.
"As a coach, you want people to be here no matter what. We have people on our team that had the opportunity to go to bigger schools and get a bigger check each month, but those kids wanted to be here. Those are the kids you coach. You look at your roster and look at what's in front of you, and you figure out the best way to put them in the position to be successful. And that's what we've done.
"The players that we have and did bring back, and the new players, have really bought into that. We're not just playing for right now. We're also playing for this year and for the future. So we're going to continue to build and continue to grow, but we're going to do it with people that want to wear a Murray State uniform."
After a stellar career at Murray High School, Turley earned the league's top freshman award behind some strong numbers: 30 games played, 1,035 minutes, 35.8% shooting from the floor, 29.1% from the arc, 87.2% from the stripe, 3.4 rebounds per game, 4.4 assists per game, and 40 steals.
But there were turnovers: 102 of them. There were defensive walls at the basket, and no whistles waiting to award free throws. And there were empty assists, as jumpers, open 3-pointers and layups clanged harmlessly at the rim.
So where does Turner think Turley has improved the most during the off-season?
"I think her ability to score in different ways," she said. "She realized, often, that going all the way to the rim and those type of things didn't work as well at this level as it had before. And so, her mid-range game is second-to-none. It's an obsolete thing for most girls. They don't have one. She has one. She's developed a floater in her arsenal, and she's able to do that. She's looking to shoot the basketball better this year. She won Freshman of the Year, and probably shot some of the worst percentages I've seen from her in a long time. But I think that's getting used to the speed of the game, and she was playing 40 minutes a game last year. She was tired. There wasn't a doubt about it. She had a big load to carry.
"I think the capability to be deeper this year with the numbers we're going to play, and just the extra year of experience, is really going to help her. But I think you'll see her offensive game go to another level this year."