Dearborn — The University of Michigan-Dearborn women’s basketball team is in the midst of a record-breaking season, cracking the NAIA Top-20 for the first time in program history while setting a record for wins in a season.
Michigan-Dearborn defeated Concordia, 79-69, Saturday in Ann Arbor to improve to 18-4, already two wins better than its previous record of 16, set in the 1978-79 and 2008-09 seasons.
So, how has 30-year-old Jordan Sweeney been able to get the job done at Michigan-Dearborn? He is in his third full season as the women’s head coach after working with the men’s program (2015-16) following two years as an assistant coach with the men’s team at Ferris State (2013-15).
Sweeney has been able to build relationships, doing a solid job of recruiting, then having multiple players come back to play for him after things didn’t work out at other schools.
Sade’ Lemons made the move to Michigan-Dearborn after first attending Central Michigan and then Macomb Community College. She was a member of The News All-East first-team following her 2014-15 season at Sterling Heights.
Sophomore point guard Ro’Zhane Wells (Saginaw Valley) and 5-foot-11 sophomore forward Cydney Williams (Wayne State) are first year players — and starters — for the Wolverines who are 10-3 in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC). Those 10 victories also are a program record for wins in the conference.
Wells earned a spot on The News Class B second-team all-state and Williams, fourth-team all-state after helping Arbor Prep make a state championship game appearance at the Breslin Center two years ago. They were starters on Arbor Prep’s Class C state championship team in 2016.
Lemons (Sterling Heights) scored 17, Wells had 12 points and five rebounds, and Williams added 11 points and a game-high eight rebounds in the win at Concordia.
Lauryn Carroll, a sophomore, also played with Wells and Williams on Arbor Prep’s state championship team. She came to Michigan-Dearborn after playing a year of Division III ball at Trine in the MIAA. Junior guard Laekyn Jaciuk transferred a year ago after starting her career at Grand Valley.
Sweeney was a starter on Cedarville’s unbeaten Class D state championship team in 2007, proudly pointing out it was the state’s lone unbeaten team that year. He uses the same uptempo style that he enjoyed playing during his high school days.
Now, Sweeney has guided Michigan-Dearborn to an incredible turnaround, already doubling the win total of a year ago. Michigan-Dearborn was just 2-27 three seasons ago.
“I was a volunteer assistant at Ferris State for a couple of years, then came here to actually work with the men’s team and was head coach of the first JV program here about 3½ years ago,” Sweeney said. “Then, I took over the women’s program for the last 12 games of the (2015-16) season after an 0-17 start. We finished 7-23 my first full year, then 9-20 last season, winning four league games each season.”
Lemons is averaging a team-high 13.5 points, Wells, 10.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists; Jeorgia Jones, 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds; Williams, 7.7 points and 6.7 rebounds and Carroll 7.3 points.
“Sade’ kind of fell through the cracks a little bit, went to school at Central for a year and then missed basketball, played at Macomb for a year, then we got her here and things have fit really well,” Sweeney said. “She can score the ball. She’s a great kid, works hard and all the kids on the team love her.”
Rod Wells, who guided Arbor Prep to that Class C state championship in 2016, then the title game appearance in Class B in 2017, is helping out with Michigan-Dearborn’s program.
“I have a really good staff and Rod helps me out,” Sweeney said of Wells, who coached his daughter, Ro’Zhane, Williams, Carroll and 5-11 sophomore Kayla Knight, who comes off the bench, at Arbor Prep. “It’s been huge to have Rod around. He’s been a well-connected person, knows a lot of people and helps with recruiting. He's known the girls a whole lot longer than I have. He’s at practice on and off, helped with conditioning prior to the season.”
Sweeney’s staff includes Tiffany Butler, Brooke Bowers — who played at Wayne State — Jasmine Bennett and Justin Popov who played at Detroit Mercy.
Sweeney loves how his team is getting up and down the court and sharing the ball. The Wolverines are averaging 74.4 points.
“We’re getting contributions from a lot of kids; three kids are scoring in double figures,” Sweeney said. “Sade’ is leading us, then Ro’Zhane Wells is next. I recruited Ro’Zhane pretty hard out of high school and missed out on her. She went to Saginaw Valley and things didn’t work out there, so she wanted to leave and came here.
“Ro’Zhane scores a little bit for us and she’s a great on-ball defender. She takes care of the ball really well, for a long time she was top 10 in the country in assists-to-turnover ratio.
“Cydney Williams is one of those kids that you don’t have to run a play for her to score. She scores running in transition, offensive rebounds, cutting, dump-offs. She’s a monster on the glass, blocks shots and is just a versatile defender where she can guard lots of people.”
Lemons feels the team has great chemistry.
“I love my team this year,” Lemons said. “We have a lot of spunk, a lot of fight. We’re willing to do anything for each other and I think that’s what really has gotten us this far. We talk to each other, encourage each other and give constructive criticism to each other to know what we’re doing wrong, then fight to the end.
“(Ro’Zhane) is a really skilled point guard who can go inside. Cyd is always there getting rebounds, going up strong. She finishes really well so I’m really proud of those two.”
Wells is happy she transferred to Michigan-Dearborn.
“I had an offer from here before my freshman year in college,” Ro’Zhane said. “I didn’t have the best experience at my last college, so it was like the easiest transition since I knew the coach and the team. It’s really special to have this much success, especially compared to what I went through last year which was a losing record.
“At Saginaw (Valley) they kind of didn’t let me play my game, made me fit into their game which wasn’t for me. Here, they like us playing fast and doing what we do best. It’s a lot faster here and we play harder, too. They already had great girls here, I just think they needed someone to help capitalize on everybody’s ability because we have so much talent here. They are a dangerous group of girls.”
Jones was among Sweeney’s first recruits.
“She’s one of the first kids I got here when I officially got the job,” Sweeney said of the 5-foot-10 junior who played at Detroit Renaissance and is Michigan-Dearborn’s undersized center. “She scores for us inside and is our leader, a vocal leader who brings tons of energy to our group.
“We’re not that big, but Cyd (Williams) and Jeorgia are our 4 and 5. We’re pretty athletic, versatile and athletic. We like to play fast. We press on and off throughout the game and try to force turnovers and get easy baskets. We’re ranked 20th in the nation. The kids are pretty well grounded. They are just playing, having fun.”
“I take a lot of pride in this team,” Jones said. “Every day when I step on the floor with them it’s the highlight of my day. We play well together and work well together. I would say that I bring the energy, but they give it to me. I feed off of them and they make me look good. I love this team and we’ve grown so much over the past few years that I’ve been here.
“I’m excited for the future. I want a championship. That’s really what my goal is. I want to go to nationals. I want it all and I feel like we can do it. I am proud to be ranked No. 20 in the nation, but our work isn’t done.”
The Wolverines work will continue on Wednesday when they play host to Siena Heights. Michigan-Dearborn won the first meeting Nov. 14, 72-65, on Siena Heights' home floor.