This isn't the first time Abbey Cornelius has been through a frustrating start to a season for the University of Tennesseee at Chattanooga women's basketball team.
The Mocs lost 60-55 at Eastern Kentucky on Thursday morning, with their seventh straight loss dropping them to 1-9 with five games remaining before their Southern Conference opener next month.
But it's a little different for Cornelius this time compared to two seasons ago, when the Mocs went 1-13 in nonconference play before earning a share of the SoCon regular-season championship. Although she started all 27 games she appeared in during that 2019-20 season, she was only a sophomore and there were more experienced teammates around her.
Now the 6-foot-2 forward from Knoxville is a fourth-year junior and the senior (in terms of experience) member of the team. Therefore the younger eyes are looking to her, and she's being leaned on — by both coaches and players — to lead.
Two years later, she does have the experience to draw back on, but now she's the one trying to convey a message to her teammates that things can get turned around.
"I've been able to keep the mindset and tell the girls that this is just preparing us to go win a championship," Cornelius said earlier this week. "The younger players might think us older girls are crazy, but they have been so good about just jumping on board and following along with everything we're feeding them, so they've been really easy to lead."
UTC coach Katie Burrows said recently that Cornelius is "doing all that she can" this season to lead a team that has no seniors on the roster. The stats pretty much confirm that.
Cornelius has averaged 14.5 points per game, six higher than the Mocs' second-leading scorer. She has averaged 9.4 rebounds, almost six more than the second-highest rebounder. She has taken more than 11 shots per game — despite never averaging more than seven in her career prior to this season — leads the team in blocks (12) and is second in assists (23). Her 33.1 minutes per contest are tops on the team.
On Wednesday, she was named the student-athlete of the week for the SoCon. The league's release noted that Cornelius, who has a 3.97 GPA and is studying exercise science, stood out in losses to Southeastern Conference programs Vanderbilt and Alabama.
For Burrows and UTC, the hope is that some of the younger players — of the nine UTC players who appeared in Thursday's game, five were freshmen — can continue to develop at a rate that makes the team more formidable as the season continues.
Cornelius had seven points and nine rebounds at Eastern Kentucky, playing a team-high 35 minutes despite going the final seven minutes of the game carrying four fouls. Freshman Destiny McClendon had a team-high 11 points, while junior Brooke Hampel had 10. Dena Jarrells had team highs in assists (six) and steals (five) to go along with eight points, while Sigrun Olafsdottir — who also battled foul trouble — had eight rebounds for the Mocs, who built a 15-point lead in the first quarter but were ahead by just one at halftime, lost their advantage early in the third quarter and never led again.
"She's really desperate to help us win," Burrows said this week of Cornelius. "But that kid can't do any more. She is our most disciplined defender and offensively is getting things done in a lot of different respects, so I can't really ask much more of her."
Carrying such a heavy load is really uncharted waters for Cornelius, who never averaged more than 14.6 points per game as a prep standout at Hardin Valley Academy. But even before the tough start for UTC two years ago, she had been on teams that struggled: The Lady Hawks went 4-10 in District 4-AAA her freshman season, although by the time she graduated she had led the program to its first state sectional appearance.
She has seen — from up close — programs rise from bad times, and she has no reason to believe it can't happen again.
The Mocs don't play again until next Wednesday, when Cincinnati visits for a 7 p.m. tipoff at McKenzie Arena. After that are home games against North Alabama and UNC Asheville and trips to Tennessee and Jacksonville State, then the SoCon opener Jan. 6 at Samford.
"This team can be great; our ceiling is so high," Cornelius said. "Once we get out of this nonconference, I think a lot of nerves are going to settle with the younger girls, and I think they'll be ready to go because they have so much talent. Once that clicks, it's going to click and we're going to be rolling.
"It's going to be hard to stop us."