She's called 'Gator' for good reason

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Southeast Missouri State University's 6-foot-2 center Lachelle Lyles leads all players in NCAA Divison I in rebounding this season with an average of 16.8 boards per game. (Kit Doyle)

When Lachelle Lyles told her teammates and coaches prior to the season that she intended to lead the nation in rebounding, she realizes some of them might have been a bit skeptical.

It's not that Lyles didn't have solid rebounding credentials -- that is, after all, her No. 1 strength -- but to be the best rebounder among all the players on the country's 324 Division I women's basketball teams?

Well, the skepticism has long since faded away.

Although there is still plenty of the season left, Southeast Missouri State's 6-foot-2 senior center is solidly entrenched as the nation's No. 1 rebounder.

Lyles will put her 16.8 per-game average on the line today when the Redhawks (11-5, 6-2 Ohio Valley Conference) play Tennessee State (4-12,1-6) at 5 p.m. at the Show Me Center.

The Redhawks, in a second-place OVC tie, had their eight-game winning streak snapped Saturday at Austin Peay. Tennessee State is in last place in the conference.

"We just need to bounce back from that game," Lyles said of Saturday's 75-60 loss.

Continued board dominance from Lyles will no doubt help the Redhawks as they not only try to bounce back but also chase their second consecutive OVC title.

And dominant is certainly what the Chicago native has been on the glass.

"Lachelle is just relentless on the boards," Southeast acting head coach John Ishee said. "The thing about her, she can get rebounds in bunches, because she's so quick to the ball.

"We call her Gator because of the way she just swallows the ball up, like an alligator swallows something up."

Lyles played a solid role on last year's Southeast team that won the program's first OVC regular-season and tournament championships and advanced to the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time.

In her rookie season with the Redhawks after transferring from junior college, Lyles was the squad's first inside player off the bench.

Although Lyles averaged just 14.7 minutes of playing time per game, she was third on the team in rebounding with a 6.4 average, which ranked ninth in the OVC.

And in conference games, Lyles averaged a team-leading 7.5 rebounds, which placed her sixth in the league. She especially came on strong at the end, making the OVC all-tournament team.

"Per minutes played, she was probably as good a rebounder as anybody in the country last year," Ishee said.

Still, there is a big difference between averaging six or seven rebounds per game, and leading the nation.

But Lyles was undaunted. She had confidence in her abilities, especially in the area that she says has always been her passion.

"Before the season I told teammates, coaches, that I was going to lead the nation," Lyles said. "I don't know if they believed me. ... A lot of people expected me to lead the conference in rebounding, but I don't think they thought I would lead the nation.

"But I really thought it was [realistic]. I was pretty confident. I've always been a good rebounder, in middle school, high school, college."

Lyles got off to a solid start this season, averaging 10.8 rebounds through the Redhawks' first five games. That kind of figure placed her high nationally -- but certainly not at the very top.

But in Southeast's sixth game -- and its OVC opener -- at Tennessee State on Dec. 7, Lyles went crazy on the glass, grabbing an OVC-record 32 rebounds that ranks as the fourth-highest rebounding performance in NCAA history and the first time in 20 years than a player has had at least 30 rebounds.

Lyles hasn't let up. She has pulled down at least 16 rebounds in eight of Southest's nine games since the Tennessee State contest, including performances of 25, 23 and 20 rebounds.

In OVC play, Lyles is averaging 20.4 rebounds per game.

"I felt like I started off slow and I knew I needed a boost," said Lyles, who is on pace to set the OVC's single-season rebounding record. "The Tennessee State game really got me going. I've tried to be real consistent since then."

Lyles said she became interested in rebounding as a youngster while she followed the career of NBA rebounding machine Dennis Rodman when he played for the Chicago Bulls.

"I used to like to watch him and I patterned my game after him. He wasn't real offensive minded, but he was a great rebounder," said Lyles, who averages 8.1 points per game, which is a solid upgrade from her 4.5 scoring average last year.

As for the keys to being a good rebounder, Lyles said, "Knowing where the ball is going to come off, boxing out, just going after it."

It has also helped Lyles that she has been able to increase her stamina from last season. She is averaging 31 minutes of playing time, which is more than twice as much as a year ago.

"I know stamina was a problem for her last year," Ishee said. "She has gotten in better shape and it's a credit to her hard work."

Lyles actually began her college career in her hometown, at Chicago State. She averaged 9.3 rebounds in 10 games -- including a 20-rebound performance -- as a freshman but decided to leave that struggling Division I program at the semester.

"I left because the program. ... I didn't think we had a chance to go to the NCAA tournament. I wanted to go somewhere where we had the opportunity," she said.

Lyles transferred to Shelton State Community College in Alabama, where she attracted the attention of national power Louisiana Tech.

But Lyles played in just one junior college game before suffering a serious knee injury that ended her season -- and ended up benefiting Southeast.

"I was about to sign with Louisiana Tech, but I got hurt right before the early signing period," Lyles said. "They told me they wanted me to sign in the spring, but then the coaching staff left for another job, and I didn't have any idea where I was going.

"SEMO called me. I visited and they told me the story about losing to Eastern Kentucky at the buzzer [in the championship game of the 2004-05 OVC tournament], how close they were. I thought our goals were the same, wanting to go to the NCAA tournament."

Lyles hasn't regretted her decision, since Southeast made it to the "Big Dance" last season.

She hopes to help lead the Redhawks back there this year. They have been among the surprises of the OVC, being picked fifth in the league's preseason poll after returning just one starter from last year.

"I thought we could have another really good season, even though we lost all those players from last year," Lyles said. "I'm not surprised. I think we can get back to the tournament."

Lyles might even have a chance to help the Redhawks next year, although she is listed as a senior.

Since Lyles played only one game of that junior college season, Southeast has filed paperwork with the NCAA in hopes of gaining her a final year of eligibility. There appears to be a chance that will happen.

"I hope so," Lyles said.

In the meantime, Lyles wants to follow through on her plans to be the nation's top rebounder, and in the process help the Redhawks achieve their team goals.

Courtney Paris, Oklahoma's 6-4 All-American sophomore forward, is on Lyles' heels with a 15.5 rebounding average. No other player is averaging as many as 13 rebounds.

"It's exciting, and I want to wind up first," Lyles said. "But I try to just focus on winning, and doing what I can to help us get back to the tournament."

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