March 18, 2024 

HBCU and CAA notebook: CAA women’s tournament is a perfect fit at Entertainment and Sports Arena

Rob Knox takes readers inside the CAA tournament, how the conference has changed for the better, and what comes next

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Coastal Athletic Association commissioner Joe D’Antonio sat courtside in a gray suit with a wide smile plastered across his face at the Entertainment & Sports Arena enjoying the women’s basketball semifinals, which perfectly captured the evolving landscape of college athletics.

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One semifinal matchup featured a battle of newbies as second-year CAA members Stony Brook and North Carolina A&T battled. In the other semifinal — a rematch of the 2019 CAA tournament championship game — golden oldies Towson and Drexel collided in a postseason matchup for the first time since that game at Delaware. Towson and Drexel have been CAA members since 2001.

“This highlights the fact that we’ve brought in some very good programs, “D’Antonio said in the hallway outside of the media room last Saturday. “Look at what Stony Brook is doing, look at A&T, a couple of the newbies and a couple of the folks that’s been around for a while so it’s very exciting for everybody involved. We knew coming into this tournament, it was deep, and everybody had a shot to win it. I mean, look at what Hofstra did. Just a classic example of the breadth and depth of competition in the conference.”

Like many conferences, recently, the rebranded CAA has been impacted positively by strong additions, forward-thinking, and remaining true to its original core of excellence, both academically and athletically. In the last two years, despite losing James Madison and soon-to-be Delaware, the CAA has added Campbell, Hampton, Monmouth, Stony Brook, and North Carolina A&T.  

But through all the changes, the CAA is thriving. This was perfectly displayed during the spirited conference tournament held last week featuring blaring bands, dancing mascots, and liquid moves on the floor by the student-athletes.

The first year of the tournament at the Washington Mystics home facility drew rave reviews.
North Carolina A&T’s Jordyn Dorsey drives to the basket past Stony Brook’s Sherese Pittman during a CAA semifinal between a pair of programs who are in their second year of the CAA. (Photo credit: CAA)

With the giant red Mystics championship banner hanging from the rafters next to the large blue Hall of Fame banner, the women’s basketball tournament is being held at the ESA for the first time to rave reviews from everybody. Previously, the women’s tournament was held on campus sites. The men’s tournament has been held at ESA since 2020.

“It means a lot to be here and being on the court where the Mystics play,” Stony Brook 6’2 graduate forward Khari Clark, a Loyola Marymount transfer, said in the postgame press conference after scoring a game-high 14 points in a win over North Carolina A&T. “Just being here means that we are continuing to pave the way for women’s sports that people value women’s sports, and that’s big for us.”

Head coaches Ashley Langford of Stony Brook and Tarrell Robinson of North Carolina A&T have embraced the changing of conferences. North Carolina A&T left the MEAC in 2021 and competed in the Big South for a year before landing in the CAA, where it finished fourth overall this season.

“Playing here on the Mystics home court gives our young women the experience of what it looks like to play in the best environment,” Robinson said. “It gives them motivation to play harder. They are excited about this tournament being here. We’ve been at the top of our conference, and I think we are earning and gaining respect. This was a hard-fought game against a good team. We got the double bye this year. We recruit the type of young women that want to represent this university and this program and be coached by me.”

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Interestingly, in a conference with tremendous tradition, three of the four women’s programs that earned double byes in this year’s CAA tournament just entered the conference last year: Stony Brook (No. 1), Monmouth (No. 2), and North Carolina A&T (No. 4). The College of Charleston, who earned the third seed, joined the CAA in 2013.

Major award winners included Player of the Year Gigi Gonzalez (Stony Brook), Sixth Player of the Year Jania Hall (Monmouth), Scholar-Athlete of the Year Shy Tuelle (Campbell), and the Dean Ehlers Leadership Award winner in Brittany Stave (Campbell). Langford was the CAA Coach of the Year. Towson’s Kylie Kornegay-Lucas was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year.

“I was in the conference before for four years (as an assistant coach at James Madison) so I was excited to learn we would be returning,” Langford said. “This helps us with recruiting in general and of course the competition. The CAA produces pros, right? There’s been WNBA draft picks from our conference and that’s the type of players we want and the type of competition we want to play against.”

Among some of the notable WNBA players who competed in the CAA are Ticha Penicheiro (Old Dominion), Tamera Young (James Madison), Elena Delle Donne (Delaware), Jazmon Gwathmey (James Madison), and Jasmine Dickey (Delaware). Also attending the semifinals was 2021 CAA Tournament Most Valuable Player Keishana Washington from Drexel.

“I am ecstatic that the women’s tournament is here,” D’Antonio said. “We wanted to put our student-athletes into a neutral site venue where we could provide them with the best possible championship experience. This building allows us to do that from the seating to the sightlines to the lighting and music. We’ve had some great tournaments that were held on campus, but this provides more of a championship feel for our women’s basketball programs, and that’s the way it should be.”

Here are some additional stories from the road, where this reporter spent five days bouncing between the CAA and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament in Norfolk, while also keeping an eye on the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament. Some quick stats: I watched 27 games either in person or online from all three tournaments and interviewed a total of 25 student-athletes from 12 programs.

Six Retires

Hampton head coach on the sidelines during the CAA Tournament in what turned out to be his final game as the Lady Pirates’ head coach. He was the winningest coach in Lady Pirate history. Six’s Hampton teams posted an overall record of 264-188, won five regular-season MEAC titles, six tournament crowns, and earned seven post-season invitations (six NCAA tournament berths and one WNIT appearance). (Photo credit: CAA)

Hampton’s legendary women’s basketball head coach David Six announced his retirement after an illustrious 15-year tenure. He was the winningest coach in Lady Pirate history. Six’s Hampton teams posted an overall record of 264-188, won five regular-season MEAC titles, six tournament crowns, and earned seven post-season invitations (six NCAA tournament berths and one WNIT appearance).

In 2018, Six suffered a debilitating stroke and spent the summer at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital undergoing treatment. This spring, Six will undergo additional treatment and rehabilitation physical therapy.

“I am deeply grateful for Coach Six’s immense contributions to our institution and women’s basketball program. His passion and enthusiasm infused our team with energy and purpose, elevating interest and success on the court.” Hampton Director of Athletics Anthony D. Henderson, Sr. stated in a press release. “Beyond his coaching achievements, Coach Six’s impact extends far beyond wins and losses. He prioritized his players’ personal and academic growth, leaving an indelible mark on our university community. In essence, Coach Six’s legacy is one of unwavering dedication and profound influence.”

As head coach, Hampton played 44 Power 5 schools, nearly three a season. The Lady Pirates posted a 6-11 record against ACC competition, defeating Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, and Boston College (twice). Coach Six’s teams were 5-8 against SEC opposition, with victories over Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU, and Florida.

“My career at Hampton has been an incredible blessing. I am grateful to everyone who made the past 16 years the best of my life,” Six said. “It was an honor and a privilege to serve as Hampton’s head women’s basketball coach. I have been extremely fortunate to live the dream of doing what I love. My years at Hampton have left me with memories and relationships that will last a lifetime.”

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Hofstra’s Run

Hofstra, as a No. 13 seed, became the lowest seed in CAA Tournament history to reach the quarterfinals. The Pride beat Hampton in a first-round game, stunned William & Mary in the second round, and had a halftime lead over North Carolina A&T in the quarterfinals.

A career-best 19-point performance from Alarice Gordon in the first-round game against Hampton turned out to occur on Pirate head coach David Six’s final game, as he announced his retirement on Monday morning.

Gordon had a surreal sequence in which she scored five points in less than 10 seconds during the victory. She made a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, stole the inbounds pass, and scored a layup during the third quarter. Then she ended up on the floor thanks to her hyped teammates.

“I just remember all my teammates in my face, and I ended up on the floor. That’s all I remember. They picked me up though. I was just in a zone at that moment.”

Hofstra’s Alarice Gordon being picked up off the floor after scoring five points in less than 10 seconds against Hampton in the CAA first round. Hofstra won two games and led North Carolina A&T at halftime in the quarterfinals. (Photo credit: CAA)

For Gordon, that moment was something she wouldn’t forget, because she had to patiently wait for her opportunity. There were times when she got down, but she relied on her faith and kept working to stay sharp. Gordon made some huge plays the next day as the Pride knocked off William & Mary.

Gordon’s effort against Hampton made her teammates happy, not because it earned the Pride another game, but because they all knew the tough road she endured to be able to have the chance to make a significant impact.

“It was amazing to see her have a game like that,” Hofstra graduate guard Sorelle Ineza said. “She’s a person who works hard and never gives up. She’s always in the gym. What’s special is she was always waiting for this moment the whole season. As a team, we are big on our faith. So I would always keep her going by telling her that God always keeps his promises and to keep believing in his story for you.”

CAA Postseason

Aside from Drexel, which earned the No. 16 seed in the Portland Two regional where it meets top-seeded Texas on Friday in an NCAA Tournament first-round game, Stony Brook, Monmouth, Charleston, and North Carolina A&T will also represent the CAA in the postseason.

After earning their first CAA Regular Season Championship and reaching the CAA Championship for the first time in program history, Stony Brook has been invited to the Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament (WBIT). The Seawolves are set to face off against No. 1 James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., on Thursday, March 21.

In its first year, the 32-team postseason event will be played March 21 (first round), March 24 (second round) and March 28 (quarterfinals), with the highest-seeded teams hosting games at campus sites. The WBIT semifinal and final games will be at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on April 1 and 3.

Additionally, three CAA teams – Monmouth, Charleston and North Carolina A&T – received berths in the WNIT. Charleston will travel to USC Upstate and Monmouth visits Buffalo. Both of those games are on Thursday night. North Carolina A&T will host cross-town for UNC Greensboro on Friday night.

It marks the second straight postseason appearance for the Hawks, who made their first WNIT appearance in 2011. For the Cougars, it will be their first postseason appearance since 2014 and their first time participating in the WNIT. The Aggies will be back in the postseason for the seventh time under Robinson, including their fourth WNIT appearance.

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SWAC Shooting Stars

One of the best games of the weekend was Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s 82-74 victory over Alabama A&M in a quarterfinal contest in Birmingham. Alabama A&M rallied from a 23-point second-half deficit but could not hold on to a slim lead down the stretch. Yet the game featured a brilliant individual matchup between All-SWAC guards Zaay Green (UAPB) and Amiah Simmons (AAMU).

Alabama A&M's Amiah Simmons is fourth in the SWAC in scoring.
Alabama A&M’s scored a career-high 34 in the SWAC Tournament against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. (Photo credit: Alabama A&M Athletics/Alexis Blue)

Simmons paced Alabama A&M with 34 points, including a career-high five 3-pointers, along with nine rebounds, three steals and two assists. Green scored 19 of her team-high 32 points in the first half, with eight assists, six rebounds and one steal. It was an amazing individual showdown between two of the best players in the country.

“I am so proud of our young ladies for competing and fighting,” Alabama A&M head coach Margaret Richards said. “We were down by 23 and they could have very easily packed it in and given up. But they competed and fought extremely hard like I knew they would. We came up short tonight, but I love how hard we fought and played.”

Simmons, an Overland Park, Kan. native averaged a team-best 15.7 points per game and scored in double figures in 27 of the 31 games played, including two games with 30-or-more points. Joining Simmons on the All-SWAC Tournament Team were Zaay Green (Arkansas-Pine Bluff), Destiny Brown (Alcorn State), Ti’Ian Boler (Jackson State) and MVP Andriana Avent (Jackson State).

Despite losing in the semifinals, UAPB had a remarkable season. They achieved their first overall winning season, which included victories over Arkansas and SMU for the first time in program history, and its No. 4 seed in the SWAC tournament was the highest for the Golden Lions since being in the SWAC. 

Alcorn State Semifinal Stunner

The best finish occurred in the SWAC semifinals last Friday between Grambling State and Alcorn State. The Braves defeated the Tigers, 61-59, on a buzzer-beater by graduate guard Tyginae Wright. Alcorn State also ended Grambling State’s 12-game winning streak.

Her basket capped a wild sequence of runs that concluded the game. Trailing by six points, Alcorn State scored 14 straight points to take a 57-49 lead with 2:02 remaining. Grambling State used a 10-2 run to tie the game with 22 seconds left following Kahia Warmsley’s 3-pointer. That set the stage for Wright.

“I saw the opening and took the shot,” Wright said during the postgame press conference. “If you look at the video you can see how calm I am. When the ball went in, I didn’t even realize that I hit the game-winning shot. I am glad I could be there for my team. I wasn’t hitting all game, and a lot of people know me as a shooter. My team trusted me, and they always told me, I don’t care if you are 0-for-30, to shoot that ball which was a big help. They always continually tell me to keep working and shooting.”

Grambling State will compete in the WNIT capping a fantastic first season for head coach Courtney Simmons. The Tigers travel to Oral Roberts on Thursday.

Press Conference Visitor

Coppin State head coach Jermaine Woods brought a special visitor to his postgame press conference following the Eagles’ 61-55 victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore in a MEAC quarterfinal contest at the Scope Arena in Norfolk. As Woods spoke, he clutched his three-month-old grandson. It was the second time he saw him. He was quiet throughout the entire press conference and at one point, he cooed as he looked at Woods after the coach mentioned the Eagles’ defense being the difference in the victory.

“He was so quiet,” Coppin State junior forward and MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Laila Lawrence said of Woods’ grandson while walking from the press conference to the locker room. “We never get to see him, so it was nice to have him around us. He doesn’t cry that much. I love Coach Woods. He’s a great coach and a genuine person. Being able to play for him is a great accomplishment. Seeing him happy makes me happy. When he recruited me, I just knew he was the coach I wanted to play for.”

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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