December 29, 2023 

HBCU notebook: Simmons finding her groove for Alabama A&M

Plus, Delaware State takes down Delaware, Southern stuns Oklahoma and more

Nothing was stopping Amiah Simmons from being a Division I basketball player.

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The explosive Alabama A&M junior guard and newly-minted Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Player of the Week took a little longer than expected to make her dreams a reality. A crafty 5’9 lefty, Simmons is thriving for the Bulldogs, who have won 13 straight home games heading into a Dec. 29 showdown against Central Arkansas.

The smooth-as-silk Simmons is shining all over the SWAC statistical leaderboard. She leads the conference in field goal percentage (47.3). In addition, Simmons is fourth in scoring (14.3), seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9), ninth in assists (2.9), and 12th in steals (1.6).

Taking the scenic route through Division II Biola University in California strengthened the Overland Park, Kan., native’s resolve. Simmons earned PacWest Freshman of the Year at Biola and All-PacWest Second-Team honors. It’s hard to believe that Simmons, who has led the Bulldogs in scoring in 11 games this season, didn’t receive one Division I offer despite averaging 34 points per game her senior year at Osawatomie High School.

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“It was discouraging to me,” Simmons said. “But at the same time, I was happy to go to Biola. I knew I wanted to play Division I basketball. Being here at Alabama A&M is a dream come true. It was an adjustment from Division II to Division I, but things have become much easier this year for me.”

To appreciate where Simmons is now, one must rewind to those grueling, sweat-soaked sessions where she had to practice her ballhandling consistently for 30 minutes daily. First, it was for 30 consecutive days, then evolved to 60 straight and 90 in a row. Her longest streak stretched to 200 days.

Simmons took no days off.

“I remember we were going on a family vacation, driving from Kansas to California,” Simmons said. “I hadn’t practiced that day and made my dad stop at a gas station to get my 30 minutes of dribbling in. It was around 11:30 at night, and we got it in. I was happy. Those ballhandling sessions made me love the game and understand the value of hard work.”

The roots of Simmons’ basketball journey were instilled in her by her parents, Sunshine and Victor, who ensured she mastered the rudiments. Her dad was her basketball coach when she started playing in fourth grade. Simmons could consistently score, but she would need to do more if she were planning to thrive at Alabama AM.

Amiah Simmons was named SWAC Player of the Week after scoring a season-high 23 points against Texas State on Dec. 20. Photo credit Alexis Blue/Alabama A&M Athletic Communications

Veteran Bulldog coach Margaret Richards, who is from Louisville and played at Nebraska, wasn’t impressed with Simmons’ prior accolades. She appreciated them, but knew that Simmons had the potential to elevate her game to another level if she took a chance on her program.

“We challenged her,” Richards said. “I told her being Freshman of the Year wasn’t good enough. She’s an aggressive scorer, but we wanted her to play both ends of the floor. When she came here last year, she didn’t take our feedback personally, which was good. I see the growth in her overall game. She’s tough, and she works hard. Amiah has a chance at the next level.”

Of course, here’s a quick funny story: Simmons, who averaged 17.5 points and scored double figures in 28 of 29 games at Biola, tallied one point in her first career game for Alabama A&M against Alabama.

Richards and Simmons both laughed at that humorous memory.

She’s come a long way from that humbling beginning.

Simmons, who is part of AAMU’s bible-study ministry and has volunteered at the Huntsville Boys and Girls Club, has blossomed into one of the top players in the SWAC. Last week in Florida, Simmons averaged 18.5 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game against FIU and Texas State on 55.2 percent (16-for-29) shooting from the floor in a pair of losses.

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Simmons poured in a season-high 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting and 2-for-3 from the free throw line, along with three rebounds, three assists, and two steals in a 63-52 loss to Texas State last Wednesday. She is the leader of the fearless Bulldog squad that was picked fourth in the SWAC preseason poll.

In addition to Simmons, the Bulldogs have 5’6 freshman guard Kayla Turner, who ranks eighth in the SWAC in scoring at 11.5 points per game. Even though Alabama A&M is the only SWAC school with two players in the top 10 of the scoring leaders, the Bulldogs are sixth in scoring offense (60.2 points per game).

Darian Burgin, a 5’7 senior guard, adds 9.0 points per contest, and Alisha Wilson, a 6’2 junior forward, chips in 8.8 points per game, giving the Bulldogs a formidable core of excellence. Wilson had a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in the Bulldogs’ last game against Texas State.

Veteran Alabama A&M head coach Margaret Richards has challenged Amiah Simmons and she has responded by developing into a complete player for the Bulldogs. Photo credit: Alabama A&M Athletics Communications.

Under Richards, Alabama A&M’s calling card has been its defense.

The Bulldogs are second in the SWAC in scoring defense (61.7 points per game). They open SWAC play on Jan. 6 on the road against Zaay Green and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. That should be a fun one.

“I appreciated coach Richards during the recruiting process because she kept it real,” said Simmons, a psychology major who wants to be an elementary Spanish teacher. “I am happy with my decision to attend here and play Division I basketball at an HBCU. This is where I was meant to be. I always believed I would play Division I basketball.”

Simmons’ journey showcases the beauty of the grind during the struggle.

“My story shows the power of never giving up,” Simmons reflected. “From being a young kid from a small town to now performing at a Division I school is something my peers never even thought possible. Also, things aren’t always going to be easy, but you have to trust that what you’re doing will work, and you have to get through the tough times to see all the results and even more success than you could dream of. God will always help you the rest of the way if you trust and believe.”

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Delaware State No. 1 In The First State

In some ways, Delaware State’s 69-66 victory over rival Delaware in the Route 1 Rivalry sponsored by DE529 may have been the most improbable December result. The schools are located 45 minutes from each other. Yes, I know some schools have knocked off Power Five opponents, but you must understand where Delaware State has been to appreciate its fourth win in six outings.

Consider, the Hornets lost their first six games, allowed over 100 points three times, 99 points in another game, and accomplished two of their three victories entering the UD game against non-Division I opponents.

Then again, under interim head coach Jazmone Turner, the Hornets are growing, so those results were part of the learning curve, especially against the likes of West Virginia and Baylor. It made triumph over Delaware significant.

Behind Tyshonne Tollie’s brilliant 22-point performance, Savannah Brooks’ outstanding 17-point effort and Denijsha Wilson’s strong 16 points, the Hornets swooshed to the finish line by outscoring the Blue Hens, 17-9, in the fourth quarter.

“This was an early Christmas present and that’s what we wanted,” Tollie said outside of the joyous Delaware State locker room on Dec. 21. “People underestimate us, and this win meant a lot to us. I was out for seven weeks, and I knew I needed to pick it up. We know we must compete hard every single game. It feels great to be back. After last year, we always stay together and are like family. This team means sisterhood and we always have each other’s back. We want to make a difference this year.”

This was Delaware State’s second triumph over Delaware in 15 meetings. It was the first time Delaware State beat Delaware in Dover. The first win for Delaware State over Delaware was during the 2019-20 campaign. The joyous Hornets immediately grabbed the trophy and posed for plenty of snapshots with wide smiles, proof that all the adversity and changes they endured are yielding positive rewards.  

“This is big for us, especially going into conference,” Brooks said. “It’s good for momentum and we’ve played some Big 12 and Big 10 teams, but this win is big for our confidence. We’re going through some growing pains, but we are getting through it. Every game is a lesson learned for us.”

Brooks is seventh in the MEAC in scoring (11.9 points per game) and Wilson is ninth (10.6). Brooks has scored at least 15 points in all four of Delaware State’s victories this season. Tollie has averaged 14.5 points in six games for the Hornets. McKenzie Stewart is third in the MEAC in rebounding (7.1). Brooks also leads the conference in 3-point field goal percentage (42.5). Delaware State begins MEAC competition by hosting Coppin State on Saturday, Jan. 6.

Southern Sparkles

Speaking of amazing fourth-quarter rallies, Southern showcased why it has the potential to repeat as SWAC champion. The Jaguars stunned Oklahoma, 79-70, by scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter. The Jaguar defense limited the Sooners to 12 points.

It was the third SWAC victory over a Power Five program this season, following Grambling State’s victory over Arizona State and the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff’s triumph against Arkansas.

Fueling Southern’s victory was Aleighyah Fontenot, who scored a season-high 22 points. She was a sizzling 8-for-11 from the field, including 6-for-9 from 3-point distance. Fontenot was named the SWAC Impact Player of the Week for her performance against Oklahoma.

Fontenot, of course, made the biggest shot in Southern history when she hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the SWAC semifinals to beat Jackson State and help the Jaguars earn a shining moment.

Ignore Southern’s 2-9 record. The Jaguars have played all over America against numerous Power 5 programs and only played two home games. Through 11 games, Southern’s top scorers are Genovea Johnson, who averages 10.7 points per game, and Fontenot, who averages nine points per game. Johnson, added 18 points against Oklahoma, has played in Southern’s last three games.

Southern, which finished with 13 steals and 14 assists, against the Sooners, opens SWAC competition title on January 6th against Texas Southern.

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UAPB Gets A Biggie

On the surface, it’s just one game.

Yet, UAPB’s 74-70 road victory over Arkansas is so much more. It’s a program-changer. It’s an in-state attention grabber. It’s the first win over a Power Five program in school history. Yes, it’s all that and so much more.

The Golden Lions rallied from a 10-point deficit at 51-41 with 6:35 left in the third quarter to earn the amazing win. It was a moment that will never be forgotten by UAPB, which has a lot of talent on its roster led by Green, who led UAPB with 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Coriah Beck tacked on 15 points and two blocks and Demetria Shephard helped out with 12 points and six rebounds from the bench.

Green is leading UAPB in scoring at 19.3 points per game. The WNBA prospect has enjoyed an early season monopoly on the Player of the Week award, winning it four times.

UAPB is 4-8 heading into its final non-conference contest at McNeese State on New Year’s Eve.

UMES Making Noise

UMES’ 6-6 record may not seem like much on the surface, but it’s a huge deal for the Hawks, who lost in the MEAC semifinals last season. UMES has a veteran core of players who are confident and getting better with each outing. Before losing to VCU last week, the Hawks were off to their best start since 2016.

“Were on point as far as I thought we would be,” UMES head coach Fred Batchelor said. “I am pleased with what we have accomplished so far. We’ve done what I’ve wanted us to do given the competition we’ve faced. I am not surprised at all and right now we are where we want to be. We gained some momentum from last year and it’s been great to see that carry over to this season.”

The balanced Hawks have four players averaging at least nine points: Ariana Seawell (12.3 points per game), Mya Thomas (10.1), Jala Bannerman (9.3) and Zamara Haynes (9.3). As a team, the Hawks are third in the MEAC in scoring offense (60.3) and scoring defense (62.9). They are second in 3-point field goal percentage shooting (30.1).

Thomas is the engine that drives the Hawks’ attack. She’s fourth in the MEAC in assists per game (2.5).

UMES graduate guard Mya Thomas is one of the MEAC leaders in assists per game (2.5). Her 10.1 points per game is second on the team. Photo credit: University of Maryland Eastern Shore Athletic Communications

Norfolk State Gets Stronger

Diamond Johnson is finally playing for Norfolk State. The NC State transfer has been cleared thanks to the recent NCAA decision that has allowed her to be immediately eligible. She hasn’t wasted any time contributing for the 9-4 Spartans, who conclude their nonconference campaign against Longwood on Sunday.

Johnson scored 15 points in her season debut against Auburn. She tallied 20 points in a win over High Point and 26 more over UNCW. She also complemented her performance against High Point with 11 rebounds. Against UNCW, Johnson had eight rebounds and six assists.

Meanwhile, Kierra Wheeler continued to remind everybody why she is one of the best players in the country. In a road overtime victory at High Point, Wheeler notched her fourth double-double with 33 points and 17 rebounds, both career highs. Wheeler’s 33 points are the most by a Norfolk State women’s basketball player since La’Deja James scored 36 at North Carolina Central on Feb. 3, 2020. Her 17 rebounds are the most by a Norfolk State women’s basketball player since Mangela Ngandjui tallied 17 against North Carolina A&T State on Jan. 17, 2021.

Norfolk State has played two home games. The Spartans begin MEAC competition next Saturday at South Carolina State.

Hammond Shines For Coppin State

Lost in the hype surrounding Angel Reese’s homecoming and national champion LSU playing a true road game at Coppin State was the performance of junior guard Tiffany Hammond. She treated Coppin State’s first sellout crowd in school history to a shooting show. Hammond made seven 3-pointers to finish with 21 points.

The seven 3-pointers were one shy of Coppin State’s single-game record. Making the moment more interesting is Hammond had been 1-for-12 from 3-point distance over her last three games. In a historic victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 21, Hammond made five 3-pointers. She has made 15 3-pointers this season with 12 of them coming in games against Pitt and LSU.

During the postgame presser, LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said the Tigers will visit Grambling State next season. She also indicated she would like to play Southern outside in LSU’s Tiger Stadium with all the money going to Southern so it could possibly be used for name, image, and likeness opportunities for its student-athletes.

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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