Pittsburgh, PA — Anytime a Duquesne women’s basketball fan speaks to redshirt sophomore guard/forward Paige Cannon, she is quick to offer a smile, but on the court, her first two seasons were difficult both maintaining that grin and remaining confident.
Cannon had been excited for her freshman season, as she worked hard to get into college basketball condition after beginning to understand the jump from high school to college, but just when she was had established some confidence, an October 2015 foot injury ended her season.
Still, Cannon wanted to contribute to her team and tried to join her teammates once a week for practice.
“It was such a weird injury because you can’t see it,” she said. “It was hard for me to express how painful it is but at the same time I liked to pretend I wasn’t hurt with the idea that I could practice. We’d run a suicide and I would say ‘I can’t, I have to sit out the rest of practice’.”
It has been a long road back to recovery, but one which has shaped Cannon. Though the recovery was hard and there were many valleys, Cannon refused to give up. It was not in her nature.
“I was raised to work very hard at everything I do,” said Cannon. “Basketball is one of the most important things to me, I just work hard and do my best so we can be our best. I’ve always seen my parents work hard at everything they’ve ever done. I’ve always been put on basketball teams with very good players and coaches and I always wanted to show I was just as good, if not better and I always wanted to show that I work hard. When I get on teams that are very good, I just try to outwork everyone.”
With playing time in the post very much up for grabs, Cannon earned a starting spot this season and has not given it up.
“Paige is the starter because it means more to her than anyone else,” Duquesne coach Dan Burt said.
Duquesne assistant coach Rachel Wojdowski understands that in her role, she cannot really root for players, but it is her opinion that with all Cannon has gone through to regain her confidence on the court, that she is extremely worthy of all of the praise and respect she has earned.
“Paige deserves everything she’s been getting just because she is someone that isn’t content with remaining wherever she is,” Duquesne assistant coach Rachel Wojdowski said. “She knew with the injury just like any freshman it’s a challenge. We knew Paige was a smart player but having the right thinking skills along with thinking quicker against more athletic people. Her first two years she just wasn’t happy but she stayed the summer, worked her butt off in the weight room, she is someone who asks a coach to shoot or work with her. She is someone who just finds success through preparation.”
Learning from the redshirt season
As Cannon looks back at her year away from game action, she certainly does not consider it lost. While the offensive role she was set to have would need to be filled by other players.
Still watching seniors Emile Gronas, April Robinson and Deva’Nyar Workman allowed Cannon to understand what the expectations were with this team.
“I wish I could have played my freshman year, that was an awesome season, but it helped me learn a lot about the program and just buying into what we do here,” she said. “I just got more mature, I was young and didn’t know what to expect when I got here. I didn’t realize how hard I had to work to be able to be successful here. That year helped me.”
Cannon still got to experience the winning as she made the trip to Richmond, VA for the Atlantic 10 Tournament and was one of the first to storm the court, injured foot and all when Duquesne defeated Fordham and Saint Louis to advance to the championship finals for the first time in program history.
It was a definite difference coming from Johnstown, OH and graduating from a successful Johnstown-Monroe High School where her career points (1,742), rebounds (945), assists (503) and steals (302) all were program records.
Cannon was first recruited to Duquesne by assistant coach Matt Schmidt, who is also considered the team’s offensive coordinator. She would later meet with Burt.
The pitch to bring Cannon to Duquesne was describing the team’s winning program and that she could be part of a program which continued to get better.
Everything sank in during Cannon’s official visit when she was amazed at how big Pittsburgh was, got to meet players and tour the campus.
Still there was an adjustment period, as she would lift weights with teammates for the first time and had to participate in practices where everything was competitive with a loss resulting in having to run immediately after.
By September, Cannon became familiar with the routine and began finding herself, but then the injury which occurred a month later shook her confidence.
The injury itself was a humbling experience to Cannon that basketball can be taken away at any moment and without hesitation, provided perspective.
“It still is very humbling because I still feel like the best is yet to come but it could have come faster if I wouldn’t have had my injury,” said Cannon. “It was a very big setback but I am improving and I think that it will keep getting better.”
Getting back onto the court
While Cannon did have a chance to return to the court for the 2016-17 season and rejoin her teammates, she did admit that she experienced several challenges both physically and mentally.
“Last year I was playing a little bit but I never felt confident enough,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t fast enough and wasn’t getting up and down the court, I was moving laterally on defense quick enough, people were getting by me and I was turning the ball over a lot. This year I am a basketball player, I can play just like everyone else. It was just trying to focus on not turning the ball over and then not fouling. I was trying to outwork everyone and make practice more intense.”
Cannon played in 31 of Duquesne’s 34 games last season, starting one of them. She averaged 10.1 minutes per game, 2.2 points per game, and a 39.7% shooting percentage.
“I didn’t have the footwork I had before my injury and it was essentially an entire year where I wasn’t moving and when I did it was not how I used to be able to because I was in pain,” said Cannon. “I couldn’t jump, my right foot was so weak. I was struggling with my confidence. I was playing last year like I didn’t want to mess up and that was the issue.”
The year in itself was one which did not meet Duquesne’s standards and one which Burt, repeatedly on record explained that the team was extremely tired.
While Cannon may not have been happy with her season and lost some confidence by not playing at the standard she had set prior to injury, she was able to earn time off the court and shake the rust off from injury, rust which is common among redshirts, injury or not.
Putting the pieces together
After two seasons which did not meet Cannon’s expectations, the decision on how to improve began in the summer when she stayed in Pittsburgh for 12 weeks working with the coaching staff, trainer Dennis Cuturic and teammates.
While she would go back to Johnstown on the weekends and spent some time in Estonia with teammate Kadri-Ann Lass, it was Cannon’s hard-working mentality which had been ingrained in her at an early age that allowed her to get to work.
While Lass was guaranteed to earn a starting post spot and the guard spots were fairly spelled out, nothing else was promised and this was just fine for Cannon, in fact she preferred having to earn the position the hard way.
Still there were some hardships when over the summer, Wojdowski challenged Cannon to become a smarter basketball player.
“At the beginning of the season, I was worried because we were having some scrimmages and I was not doing very well on defense,” Cannon said. “It was hurting us as a team and I understood if I didn’t pick it up on defense that it was going to affect everyone. I just was fouling a lot and they were just getting to the free throw line a lot. I think it was partly because I am a smaller post player and I just needed to learn how to use my feet. I just tried to make that a focus during practice so I could get better. When I did that, things started working out for me.”
Cannon, who considers herself a high IQ basketball player, took the challenge to heart and earned the starting nod at the four spot.
Part of this hard work included an increased commitment to defense and Cannon has frequently been referred to as the “quarterback of the defense”, diving for loose balls, calling out plays, blocking shots and positioning herself for rebounds.
Cannon has had four games with 10-plus rebounds and recorded the first two double-doubles in her Duquesne career.
“Paige is a kid who knows what she has to do,” said Wojdowski. “You don’t have to coach her necessarily because she knows how to get it, what to do and simply she’s going to do it. We never have to worry about Paige getting in on her own.”
Cannon also put work in on the offensive end, and frequently she puts in the extra work whether it is 700 shots in a practice gym on an off-day, doing her own on-court warm up an hour prior to the team doing the same or doing an extra set of reps in the gym.
Part of the reward was a 12-point, 11-rebound effort Nov. 26 against noticeably taller Virginia players.
“I never expected that,” Burt said. “I can still see the one rebound plain as day when she out jumped a really athletic kid that was probably three inches taller. That comes down to effort. She’s a little better athlete than I give her credit for. That athleticism is from her commitment to the weight room.”
Wojdowski called the Virginia game, Cannon’s “coming out party”
“That game Paige basically had to guard that whole team,” said Wojdowski. “She’s that glue kid for us which is huge.”
Despite this success, Cannon was still having trouble making shots outside of the paint and was quick to mention her 1-for-15 performance on her three-point shots prior to this past road trip.
Despite those longer-range shots not consistently falling, Cannon showed maturity by not letting it impact the rest of her game.
“I think before I would have completely stopped and shut down, it really would have effected me,” she said. “It was more of doing what I need to be doing, I am shooting and my shot feels right, looks right, but it just wasn’t falling. It was affecting me mentally in the game a little bit, but I wasn’t letting it affect the rest of my game.”
This past road trip, Cannon went 2-for-3 on her three-point shots as Davidson dared her to take those shots, trying to play the percentages, but the move backfired.
“She’s a really competitive person and that really sets her apart,” said Burt. “From a competitive standpoint she’s one of the most competitive on the team and that’s saying something because we have Juca (Vojinovic), Chas (Omogrosso) and others.”
The best is yet to come?
Already this season, Cannon’s minutes and points per game averages have more than doubled, she has played more minutes than all of last season, she is shooting 42% from the field, is an 86.7% free throw shooter, has one less assist than all of last season, has more offensive rebounds than last season and has more defensive rebounds than her entire output from 2016-17.
Cannon clearly understands and accepts her role but Burt believes that Cannon’s successful story, is far from done.
“We still think there is another level or two she can get to but she’s going to reach that,” Burt said. “She has reached a level now where she impacts every game with her defense. When she’s balanced and playing slow, she is a very effective offensive player whether that’s distributing the ball, screening or as we saw in the Davidson game, being a good perimeter shooter when she’s on balance and takes her time.”
Cannon concurs with her coach adding that though there is a lot to do during the season, there is still time to improve.
“I feel like I can get shots up, it only takes 45 minutes and then I have the rest of the day,” she said.
Assessing the journey to date, Cannon, true to form, offered a smile and appeared near tears when looking back at the choices she made, that has made her return to the court from a season-ending foot injury a successful and productive one.
“I’m proud of myself for the extra work I have put in to be able to help get myself to where I am right now,” said Cannon. “I worked a lot over the summer and am most proud of that extra work because of the things I have done when no one else has been here.”