For the first time since joining the Colonial Athletic Association in 2001, Hofstra's women's basketball team reached the conference final last season. But nationally ranked James Madison -- which lost to the Pride during the regular season -- won the title and the NCAA Tournament bid.

For coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey, the coming season is about taking the next step.

"We obviously have a lot of high expectations," Kilburn-Steveskey said. "Having most of the players returning and having that experience of how close we really were is what has made these guys a lot more hungry.

"One key is trying to have fun on the journey. Having the opportunity to be in that final game, now you keep that same recipe of being very focused but enjoying the steps that are going to get us to that point."

The Pride suffered a damaging offseason blow when center Elo Edeferioka transferred to Georgia Tech, but CAA rookie of the year Ashunae Durant (11.0 points, 7.0 rebounds) returns in the frontcourt.

Kilburn-Steveskey is thrilled with a backcourt that features leading scorer Kelly Loftus (12.5 points), dominant point guard Darius Faulk (7.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists) of Hempstead and Krystal Luciano (6.5 points). Anjie White (9.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) figures to be the regular starter at center.

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"Our backcourt is huge for our success," Kilburn-Steveskey said. "Darius Faulk is really beginning to separate herself. She's a woman among girls. It's hard to stop her, and she can defend the best player on anyone's team.

"Kelly Loftus stepped out of the shadows last season. She's way more than just a shooter. Krystal Luciano has stepped out as a point guard with vocal leadership on the floor."

The Pride is extremely deep in the backcourt with Asia Jackson, Jakelle King-Gilchrist and Olivia Askin expected to contribute. Sandra Dongmo, a 6-4 junior center from Cameroon, also has an opportunity to make an impact.

"I think they have even more confidence now that we can do it," Kilburn-Steveskey said.

But recalling her 2011 team that put pressure on itself to meet similar high expectations, she added, "We have to not let them get pressured, so I'm preaching to have fun.''

Hofstra women's basketball

Last season: 20-13, 11-7 CAA, Women's NIT

Players to watch

DARIUS FAULK: Told not to shoot when she was at West Virginia, Faulk spent the offseason working constantly to improve her shot and contribute more on offense. Kilburn-Steveskey said Faulk already is the best lockdown defender in the conference, but she has to be careful about foul trouble with her physical style.

KELLY LOFTUS: Regarded primarily as a pure scorer in the past, Loftus has worked to improve her overall game and learn how to be effective when her shot isn't falling. "I'm trying to build her into a total, all-around player and not just somebody who comes off screens," Kilburn-Steveskey said.

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ASHUNAE DURANT: Before Durant's freshman season, Kilburn-Steveskey challenged her to put her picture on the practice facility wall with the program's past stars. She got off to a great start, shooting a team-best .487 from the field, fourth in the Colonial, and winning six rookie of the week awards before the big one.