WARWICK Senators point guard Samaria Howard prides herself on being an all-round player and now she is fully embracing everything about her first season down under that she can’t hide her excitement ahead of Friday night’s Grand Final.
Following her college career at Tennessee Tech which saw her put up 21.0 points and 5.3 rebounds a game in the 2015/16 season, Howard embarked on her professional basketball journey in Europe with stints in Spain and Greece.
The language barriers and more physical basketball style took some adjusting to, but what Howard had always done was find ways to differentiate herself from other point guards and for someone only 5’7, her rebounding remains one of her great strengths.
Her all-round game for a point guard remains one of her great strengths now too in her first season in Australia where she has proven an astute signing by the Senators to play in the back court alongside veteran leader Nicole Jorre De St Jorre and brilliant shooter/scorer Stacey Barr.
Howard has gone on to deliver 14.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game this season further highlighting not only her all-round talents, but what a brilliant rebounder she is for her position and size.
But for Howard all her focus now is on Friday night’s Grand Final against the Rockingham Flames at Bendat Basketball Centre.
That means a challenging opponent for her at point guard in the form of Alex Ciabattoni, but moreover she is just excited for the chance to play in the first Grand Final with the Senators since 2007 as they attempt to win a first championship since 1994.
“You can just tell that if we win it will mean a lot to so many people and I don’t think the club has won since 1994 so that would make it mean the world to them. And especially for the girls on the team, to be part of that team that actually won it would just be crazy,” Howard said.
“I’m really excited. I’m just trying to enjoy everything this week about the build up to it and I want to make the most of the experience no matter if we win or lose.
“Everyone wants to be a part of a Grand Final especially being an American coming over here, that’s one thing you dream of doing so I’m just excited about that.
“I’m just happy that I’m on a team that made it and we’ve been working hard to make the most of this opportunity. I’m really confident in my team and then just the love we’ve been getting around the club and from the fans is an unbelievable feeling.”
What quickly became evident about Howard when she arrived three games into this Women’s SBL season at the Senators was that while she might have been relatively small, she played with enormous energy and was a tremendous rebounder.
The numbers now back that up with her averaging 6.5 boards a game including six games in double-figures and a high of 14 against the Cockburn Cougars.
She is also a more than capable scorer both in terms of shooting and getting to the rack while being a strong ball handler, good distributor and solid defender.
It’s that all-round game that makes her able to contribute to the Senators in so many ways and that’s the way she’s always tried to make herself standout as a player by having so many strings to her bow.
“That is something that has always made me different because I’m a smaller guard so I had to do things differently than other people,” she said.
“I think that was one of the reasons that in my first year when I signed in Europe, and my coach told me one of the biggest reasons I got chosen was because I could jump and rebound better than the other guards.
“The other guards they tried out or saw film of did all the same thing, they could all shoot and dribble and pass, but the biggest thing that separated me was the fact that I could rebound and jump against the bigger players even though I was small.
“I just always use that to my advantage because I know if I go to a tryout with 100 other girls there and they are all good players, I have to do something that separates me from them. So I kind of just worked on having an all-round game instead of just being good at one or two things.”
The Senators might have not quite been firing on all cylinders entering the finals having won just three of their past eight matches in a tough back end of the season with players coming in and out.
But they set their season up well when they were closer to full strength winning 11 of their first 14 games which left Howard always confident that they could click again at the right time of the year.
That’s exactly what has happened with four outstanding playoff games to eliminate the Willetton Tigers and Lakeside Lightning to now advance to the Grand Final.
“I definitely did feel like when we had a full team we’d be a chance to get here. I just knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that was the only thing,” Howard said.
“That period of time when Bianca was out and Tayla was gone, that was definitely when we kind of fell off a little bit and we did lose some confidence from that. But once everybody came back together, that motivated us.
“We really worked hard and it got us where we are now. All of us have clicked together really well and everybody gets along great, and I think that was one of the biggest reasons why we’ve made it so far because the team is like one big family.”
The Senators booked their place in the Grand Final by winning Game 2 against the defending champion Lightning at Warwick Stadium on Friday night.
While Howard wasn’t overly happy with how she played with five points and 11 rebounds, she found it tough to be too unhappy when she realised the win meant they were in the Grand Final and one win away from the championship.
“We were definitely happy and I was really happy with my teammates after we beat Lakeside. In the first game I did pretty well myself and in the second game I wasn’t that great, but I have a good supporting cast with people who can just pick up the slack,” she said.
“I think that was what I was very happy with because it’s always sad when you play bad and your team loses. So if you play bad and your team still wins, you can’t really walk away that upset.
“I still have another opportunity now to play again so I just had to forget that game myself and think about celebrating as a team and now looking forward to the championship game where you just have to leave it all on the floor.”
It was a great season of change for the Senators from the team that lost to the Perth Redbacks in the quarter finals last year to the one that started 2019.
The biggest change was Dion Dagostino coming in as coach and then he recruited strongly bringing in not only Howard, but also Stacey Barr, Sam Roscoe, Bianca Villegas, Tayla Hepburn and welcoming back Maddison Hooper.
The back court that Howard in particular has formed alongside Barr has proven a massive reason why the Senators have now made it all the way to the Grand Final.
Howard even finds herself looking on in awe at some of the shots Barr makes and she is sure in good form entering the Grand Final having combined for 75 points in the two series-clinching playoff wins to date.
“Stacey is great and I’ve never really played with somebody like her before. There might have been one other person in college that can really just shoot so well, but I’ve never really played with someone that can shoot as well as her,” Howard said.
“She’s made some great decisions with the ball, made shots that just make you say wow you are so amazed. It’s just so good to have those types of teammates that at any given moment they can hit a shot and everybody goes crazy.
“She brings that excitement to the game and a lot of players don’t have that ability that she does. That’s what makes her so different than other shooters because you can always find good shooters, but to find this type of shooter is rare.”
Having grown up in Jacksonville, Florida and then attending Tennessee Tech, Howard always knew the most likely way for her to make a living from basketball was to do so overseas and she enjoyed her European stints in Greece and Spain despite some of the challenges.
But she was after a fresh home this 2019 season and having always wanted to come to Australia, when the offer came from the Senators it was a tough thing to turn down.
“I just get around to be honest, man. Every year I hear from different coaches in different leagues and I just choose from what I think will be a good fit for me. When I graduated, I had a lot of teams in Europe speaking to me and I chose what I thought would be best,” she said.
“I had a good experience even though it was really tough to start with just to get the ball up the floor. It was so hard and you weren’t able to dribble through the press, you definitely had to pass it and make good decisions.
“It was a really good competition out there and here as well the competition is a good standard. I think one thing that is different, though, from being in Europe to here is that here you have more of a family environment at the clubs.
“You have all the junior teams involved and in Europe you don’t have that, you just have your professional team. What makes it so good here is having those juniors around and you have all the fans who are so involved.
“And Australia was always one of the countries I wanted to play in and the timing works well with the Europe season September to April, but this season is March until August so it worked out well. I just wanted to try something new.”
Howard has enjoyed everything about the Australian lifestyle and the way the basketball has gone in the SBL with the Senators with the lack of a language barrier without doubt being the biggest plus over her previous stops as a professional basketballer.
“I’ve definitely enjoyed living out here too and the fact that everybody speaks English is such a good thing. Now you can understand everybody and you don’t need no interpreter,” Howard said.
“My coach in Spain didn’t speak English at all and my assistant coach did a little bit, but it wasn’t great and that was really hard. My head coach would yell at me in Spanish but I’d have no idea what he was saying and then we had an interpreter.
“He would try to explain as much as he could as fast as he could, but he could never tell me everything so I had to figure it out on my own. So that was tough sometimes and Greece was the same.
“My head coach actually spoke really good English but then some of my teammates didn’t speak any but we made it work somehow and figured it out. But it’s much nicer to be somewhere that everyone speaks English.”