As the old saying goes, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
The Wilberforce University women’s basketball team knows that well:
A month into this season, Derek Williams, the Bulldogs coach and the school’s athletics director, was forced to cancel three games, all practices and send his players back to their hometowns for 2 ½ weeks or so because the school officials, hoping to ease financial pressures on the institution, shut down the campus for part of December.
“It was rough keeping the girls’ spirits up and keeping them focused,” he said. “When they came back I told them they’d be OK. I said, ‘Let’s just pick it back up. Let’s look at it as a new season.’
“And they bought into that and things just took off.”
Now 19-11 – which is the most wins in a season in program history – the Bulldogs left Monday on a 12-hour bus ride to Sioux City, Iowa, where they’ll play in the NAIA Division II Women’s National Basketball Tournament. It’s just the second time in school history they’ve qualified for the event.
Wednesday morning they face No. 1 seeded, 31-2 Concordia University of Nebraska.
Nia McCormick— who is listed as 5-foot-5 on the Bulldogs’ roster, but admits she’s just 5-1 – started her college career at Rio Grande University three seasons ago. That freshman year the Finneytown High grad didn’t play a lot or score much.
“We had a lot of good players at Rio and I was just kind of overlooked,” she said.
“They didn’t really allow her to shoot much,” said Williams. “They wanted her to be a pure point guard and just pass the ball to other people.“
McCormick said she felt Rio Grande “just wasn’t a good fit for me,” and when she looked to transfer she thought of Williams, who had recruited her out of high school when he was at Cincinnati Christian University before taking over at Wilberforce.
“When she walked in our door, I told her we needed her to shoot.” Williams said. “I wanted her to be a scorer.”
And she’s done that, leading Wilberforce in scoring each of her two seasons. After averaging 13.2 points per game last year, she’s at 14.8 this season.
Because she’s small and was overlooked early on, McCormick admitted: “It’s given me a chip on my shoulder. I want to show what I can do and who I really am.”
And that’s certainly happened, Williams said, “Everybody on the team and, really, on the whole campus, looks up to her. She’s not real vocal, but she leads us by example. She might be small, but she carries a big stick.
“We look to her for everything, whether we need points or need somebody to play good defense on the other team’s point guard.”
McCormick has helped revive the program at Wilberforce, which has about 500 students and whose women’s basketball program had struggled in the past.
“I didn’t know anything about Wilberforce until we played them that year I was at Rio,” she said.
When she thought of transferring to the historic black university, she said her mom, Vatina Gray, was supportive of the idea
Gray and Nia’s late father both went to Florida A&M, a well-known HBCU in Tallahassee, Fla.
“I’m glad I made a decision to come to Wilberforce,” she said. “Everybody here is like family and we look out for each other. When someone needs help, we try to help them.”
She immediately helped the hoops program, especially this season when she’s had several big games: 25 points against Cumberland University (Ky.), 20 against both Haskell Indians Nation University (Kansas) and Crowley’s Ridge College (Arkansas) and 19 versus St. Mary-of-the-Woods College (Indiana).
When the school shelved the program for much of December, she admits: “I was upset about it. You don’t expect that.
“But we made up some of the games and it has turned out OK. And, to be honest, I’m just happy to be here and happy I get to play college basketball. Everybody doesn’t get an opportunity like this.”
The Bulldogs left early Monday morning on their long bus ride to Iowa. But actually, that’s the easy part of their trip.
Wednesday’s opponent is the same school that beat them 100-62 in the opening round last season. While it was the Bulldogs first trip to the national tournament, it was Concordia’s 19th in the 29 years of the event.
In that game Concordia opened with a 22-0 run and its game-long press forced Wilberforce into 34 turnovers. McCormick scored seven points.
Concordia went on to win the national title and may be even better this year, Williams said: “They returned everybody this season.”
Now on a 21-game winning streak, Concordia’s only two losses came by just two points in the season opener against NCAA Division I Creighton and to NAIA power Southeastern University in Florida in December.
“We’re better, too, this season,” said Williams. “Our defense is better and we’re faster on offense and are scoring transition points
“We’re telling our kids, ‘Look, this is a rematch. We have an opportunity to go out there and show everyone else we’re better now.’
“And in a basketball game you never know. Anything can happen on any given day.”
He’s banking on a variation of that old saying.
He’s hoping this year’s finish is better than last year’s tournament start.
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