As opponents swarmed Jules LaMendola with extra defenders and different schemes to limit her, she was unfazed.
She frequently encountered that last season as a senior, as teams knew how dangerous the IU commit was. When LaMendola was a junior, her Coppell (Texas) High School team had a center who went on to play in Division II, and that helped alleviate some pressure on her.
But there were no detractors last year. So opponents constantly sent double-teams and triple-teams at her, and did whatever they could to stop her.
“I think they would throw all five players at her if they could,” teammate Waverly Hassman said.
LaMendola still thrived; the extra defensive attention may only have prevented her from putting up even bigger numbers.
But she wasn’t flustered or frustrated when opponents utilized those tactics. LaMendola saw the heavy pressure as a sign of respect.
“She thought it was fun. It was a compliment that teams are looking at it that way,” Coppell head coach Ryan Murphy said. “She took it as a challenge.”
Murphy worked with LaMendola on combatting those schemes during practices, putting the boys team in box-and-ones and double-teams against her. And that’s where she’d get bothered.
Hassman and her teammates could see it.
“She would start trying to go one-on-five and try to do too much instead of working with her teammates,” Hassman said. “Having those mistakes in practice really allowed her in games — when teams threw double-teams and box-and-one and everything at her — to find the little cracks in their defensive scheme, and she was able to make big plays out of it.”
The 6-foot-1 guard boomed on the recruiting scene a little later after she missed nearly all of her freshman season with an injury. She took off as a sophomore, turning around Coppell’s program and rapidly improving her game. LaMendola chose Indiana over three other Big Ten schools.
But in the last year, her profile has risen even more. She wasn’t ranked in ESPN’s top 60 when she committed to IU last spring. When the list expanded to 100 a few days later, LaMendola checked in at No. 84. After another strong AAU campaign, she jumped to No. 54 in October, and finished at No. 52 in the final rankings.
Those leaps are reflective of LaMendola’s big senior year at Coppell. She led the Cowgirls to their first-ever state tournament appearance, capturing area and regional titles along the way.
LaMendola averaged 17.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.4 steals per game last year. And she earned countless postseason honors, between player of the year awards and first team selections. While some eventually blended in with each other, it meant a lot to her to become Coppell’s first-ever girls basketball Gatorade Player of the Year.
But those accolades weren’t her main objectives. She just wanted to win.
“My goal was to go to state and win state. It wasn’t to be Gatorade Player of the Year or whatever accolades I got. Those are accomplishments I’m proud of, but they weren’t goals I had set at the beginning of the year,” LaMendola said. “My main goal was to go to state and win.”
‘Jules will do anything to win’
LaMendola is known for her competitiveness.
She’s driven by a desire to win and to be the best at anything she does. And she doesn’t need much more than that to get motivated.
But ahead of Coppell’s regional quarterfinal game against South Grand Prairie, she got more.
LaMendola and her teammates went to another playoff game in their bracket, featuring teams the Coppell-South Grand Prairie winner could see later in the tournament. They saw South Grand Prairie’s coach in the crowd at that game and felt disrespected, like he thought Coppell would be an easy win and was looking ahead.
The Cowgirls had plenty of motivation already, as South Grand Prairie beat them in the playoffs in 2022. But seeing the coach at the other playoff game fired them up even more. LaMendola scored 17 points and led Coppell to a 43-39 win, sending the program to its first regional tournament since 1990.
“She had a great game, and she definitely led us through that game. I remember thinking through that whole game that Jules will do anything to win,” Hassman said. “Having someone that’s competitive as she is makes everyone go up to her level.”
That sentiment is nothing new. As a junior, LaMendola had a “flu game” — she dropped 39 points after throwing up in the locker room while recovering from illness. She’s been a fierce competitor from a young age, growing up in an athletic household that got after it both in driveway basketball games and family board game nights.
Her teammates and coaches have long seen that competitiveness from LaMendola. While it may not have strengthened as a senior — it’s hard to get any more competitive than she already is — she developed as a leader and brought it out of her teammates even more.
Hassman said LaMendola’s ability to talk on the court — more than anything she does with the basketball — is what makes her so good. LaMendola learned a lot last season about communicating with teammates — that people respond differently to different styles of leadership.
“Some girls (in high school) want the same thing as you, and so you’re able to communicate with them on a higher level. But some girls only respond to positive reinforcement. Some people can take criticism, and some people can’t,” LaMendola said. “Learning how to communicate with everybody, making sure they all feel like they’re heard and that they’re appreciated on the team — that was definitely a big part of it.”
Growing her game
When Indiana’s staff first saw LaMendola, they couldn’t pinpoint exactly what they liked about her. But they knew they had to keep watching.
Her ability to play multiple positions and do so many different things on the court fits the prototype of players head coach Teri Moren likes. Associate head coach Rhet Wierzba said there isn’t one specific thing LaMendola excels at, but that she does so many little things to help her team.
“She’s a player, the more you watch, the more you like,” Wierzba said. “She just does all the things that it takes to win. She takes charges. She makes the extra pass. She’ll set the screen. She runs the floor. She’ll get a rebound. She’s a winning player. She makes winning plays, and she can make shots. She’s tough.”
Wierzba saw LaMendola grow a lot as a senior, particularly in her shooting and ball-handling. Murphy saw that as well. Mid-range shooting was already one of LaMendola’s biggest strengths, and while she started extending that range beyond the 3-point line as a junior, Murphy said she became much more consistent beyond the arc as a senior.
She added some post skills last year as well, backing down opponents in whom she spotted exploitable mismatches inside. And she also improved defensively, both on and off-ball. Murphy said LaMendola took more than 35 charges last season.
With her skill set, length, and basketball IQ, Murphy knew LaMendola would get the job done anywhere he put her.
“Before games, she would sometimes say, ‘Where do you think I’ll be most successful? And we used to joke around and say, ‘As soon as you cross halfcourt, anywhere in that area,'” Murphy said.
Joining the Hoosiers
LaMendola — like Lenée Beaumont — will have a chance to make an impact right away.
It’s tricky to project Indiana’s rotation this early, when offseason work could affect players’ conditions heading into the season. And despite three open roster spots, IU has a lot of players who will be vying for roles this season. And while Moren went a little deeper at times last year, she typically utilizes a tighter rotation.
LaMendola’s versatility will help her case, but she and Beaumont join Sydney Parrish, Sara Scalia, Chloe Moore-McNeil, Yarden Garzon, Lexus Bargesser, and Henna Sandvik among IU’s guards. There are only so many minutes to go around.
Wierzba said LaMendola and Beaumont’s roles will depend on the work they put in during the summer and fall. But he said if LaMendola makes that effort and takes the necessary strides, she could be in the mix.
“It’s always a step up in order to go from high school to college and she’s going to be joining a team that (has) very high expectations, but I think she’ll be ready to step in,” Wierzba said. “I think her competitive nature will suit us well.”
LaMendola wasn’t certain she’s ready for college basketball, but only because she’s never experienced it. She knows there will be the adjustment Wierzba referenced, with everything — workouts, pace of play, basketball IQ around her — more intense than she encountered in high school. She said she’s excited to get acclimated to that higher level.
Murphy felt more sure that LaMendola is ready. He said she has things to continue working on at IU to keep improving, especially physically. But after seeing LaMendola change the culture of Coppell girls basketball for the last four years and the work she put in to do so, he’s confident she can go to Bloomington and contribute quickly.
“I think she’s maxed out what she can do at this level,” Murphy said. “I think she’s really well-prepared. I think the skill stuff will come. But I think in terms of her habits, her preparation, and the commitment she’s willing to put in, I think she’s college-ready in that sense right now. I don’t think that part will be a huge adjustment for her.”
ᴄᴏᴘᴘᴇʟʟ ʜɪɢʜ sᴄʜᴏᴏʟ@CowgirlsBball
— 🥶The Baller Plug🥶 (@AnalyticalCoach) March 8, 2023
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”