November 29, 2023 

HBCU November notebook: Young helps Grambling State to signature victory

First-year head coach Courtney Simmons walked into an ambush she’ll cherish forever

After the Grambling State women’s basketball team surprised Arizona State, 70-67, for a significant program victory on Nov. 16, first-year head coach Courtney Simmons walked into an ambush she’ll cherish forever.

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Giddy players patiently waited for Simmons to arrive at the locker room to deliver her postgame speech. As soon as she entered, the water shower started. Players used water bottles to douse the victorious Simmons. 

A few days later, Simmons was still performing a forensic analysis of how she was tricked so that her players could shower her with appreciation. Yes, pun intended. 

“I think my SID set me up,” a smiling Simmons said to The Next. “I have twin daughters and I was asking where they were, and she assured me they were fine. Then I walked into the locker room, and the players had the lids off of the water bottles. It’s a water bath I’ve waited a long time for. I always tell my team that the sky isn’t the limit; it’s just the view.”

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Simmons has brought tremendous energy to the Tigers this season. She joined Grambling State after 10 years at Troy University, serving as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.

Simmons helped guide the Trojans to five Sun Belt championships and six postseason berths, including three NCAA tournament appearances.

The biggest thing she has done for Grambling State is instill confidence in her players to take shots. Sophomore guard DeMya Young has benefited from Simmons’s belief and passion.

A 5’10 dynamo, Young scored a career-best 23 points to lead the Tigers over Arizona State. Young had help, as Jazmyne Jackson added 15 points. The dynamic duo combined to make 12 of Grambling’s 15 3-pointers against the Sun Devils.

It was a special moment for Young, who is majoring in kinesiology. The transfer from Little Rock has endured her share of adversity in the form of two anterior cruciate ligament tears and a meniscus surgery. 

“Our coach does an amazing job,” Young said. “She’s high intensity, but it’s been great. I didn’t play at Little Rock because of my injury, and last year I was nervous and scared. Plus, I didn’t get a lot of playing time. I thought [coach Simmons] would kick me off the team when she got here, but she allowed me to prove myself during practice.”

Young leads Grambling State in scoring at 11.6 points per game. 

Demya Young playing defense for the Tigers in the win over Grambling State.
Grambling State’s DeMya Young playing defense in the game against Arizona State. (Photo credit: Grambling State Athletic Communications)

Although Simmons permitted herself to enjoy the victory over Arizona State, she keeps everything in perspective. It was Grambling State’s second win against a Power Five opponent in program history. The Tigers beat Indiana, 65-52, on Dec. 18, 2018, in Puerto Rico. 

“It feels good to win big games,” Simmons said. “We checked a lot of boxes. However, we know we still have a lot of work to accomplish to reach our goal of having confetti falling on us in March. I tell my team to shoot the ball and don’t want to put them in a box. They are building confidence to have the courage to take shots. After all, you can’t make the shot if you don’t take it.”

As impressive as the Arizona State victory was, the Tigers’ 64-59 road victory over Northwestern State on Nov. 22 may have been better. Grambling State rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to even its overall record at 3-3 heading into the Thanksgiving break. While Young led Grambling State with 18 points, she had plenty of help.

Brenda McKinney had 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Arianna Mosley added 12 points as a reserve, which helped Grambling State win the battle of the benches, 22-10. In addition, Grambling State made eight of 14 baskets in the final quarter while limiting Northwestern State to 4-of-15 shooting in the last 10 minutes. 

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Historic Start for Norfolk State

Norfolk State, which started 5-0 for the first time as a Division I program with impressive road wins against Drexel, William & Mary, Radford and Hampton, suffered its first loss of the season, to East Tennessee State in the Miami Holiday Tournament. In the consolation game, the Spartans bounced back to beat Colgate, 58-51. 

It should be noted that the Spartans played against ETSU without veterans Kierra Wheeler, a 6’1 junior forward, and Makoye Diawara, a 6’0 junior forward. Still, that setback hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm for the reigning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champions, who are 3-0 against Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) competition and 6-1 overall heading into a road trip through the Midwest. 

Norfolk State will visit Minnesota on Wednesday and Chicago State on Saturday.  

“I thought this November was going to be super tough, not that it hasn’t,” Norfolk State head coach Larry Vickers said. “Our offense and defense have come together faster than I thought. It helps that players like Niya Fields, Kierra Wheeler, and Makoye Diawara have been part of teams that have won three of the last four MEAC championships. That winning culture and understanding how it translates into winning practices is underrated. The freshmen are buying in, so it’s been great to see.”

Wheeler leads Norfolk State in scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.0). She had a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) in the victory over Appalachian State. Wheeler has had at least seven rebounds in every game she’s played this season. The App State game is one of two non-conference home games for Norfolk State, which will host UNCW on Dec. 28. 

“We’re going to be road warriors this first semester,” Vickers said. “You can have more structure on the road. For example, we don’t do bed checks for home games, so I don’t know when they sleep at home. It was hard to work out dates to get some home games. At this point, it’s a respect for our program and how hard we’ve worked to win consistently and place ourselves in strong positions to compete for championships.”

Next season, Norfolk State will have a home game against Drexel. The Spartans edged the Dragons in Philadelphia, 51-49, on Nov. 8. Freshman Anjanae Richardson, who averages 8.3 points per game, made the game-winning 3-pointer in the final 20 seconds to give Norfolk State a significant triumph. 

Another freshman, 5’7 guard Da’Brya Clark, averages 9.3 points per game, which is second on the team. She had consecutive strong games, scoring 16 in a road win at Radford and 14 against Appalachian State. Fields averages 8.0 points per game and leads Norfolk State with 11 steals. Diawara pulls down 7.2 rebounds per game and averages 6.6 points.

As you see, the Spartans have gotten contributions from several players.

One player they hope to get on the floor is NC State transfer Diamond Johnson. The Spartans hope to hear from the NCAA soon about whether Johnson will be eligible this season. Stay tuned.

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Howard in Paradise

Even though Howard dropped games to Mississippi, Memphis and DePaul during its participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas, its presence was significant. Howard was the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) to participate in this elite tournament.

”In 2023, it’s crazy even still to hear that we’re having the ‘first HBCU’ conversation, but I’m blessed and grateful to be a part of history,” 5’10 Howard senior guard Kaniyah Harris said. “Howard has always been a front-runner in representation, and I’m glad I can experience this with my team and make lifelong memories while competing in the sport that we all love.”

Coppin State Conquest

Grambling State wasn’t the only HBCU women’s program to beat a Power Five opponent. Coppin State edged Pittsburgh, 61-56, on Nov. 21 on the road. It was Coppin State’s second victory in program history over Pitt. The Eagles beat the Panthers, 75-61, on Nov. 25, 2003. Pitt was a member of the Big East at the time.

Fueling Coppin State’s victory was 6’2 junior forward Laila Lawrence, who recorded her fourth double-double of the season, with 16 points and 12 rebounds. 

“It feels good to beat Pitt,” Lawrence said. “Being a part of history anywhere is always special, and it’s nice to be known for something good. Beating an ACC team is especially good for an HBCU because we tend to be overlooked. We woke up a lot of people with that victory.”

Through seven games, Lawrence’s 14.6 point-per-game average is second on the team. Her 8.9 rebounds per game is second in the MEAC. Lawrence arrived at Coppin State after playing her first two seasons at Texas A&M-Commerce, which transitioned from Division II to Division I last year.

Lawrence has been a great addition to the Eagles’ program this season. She has scored in double figures six times this season and has a pair of 20-point outings against La Salle and Florida International. She also had a 19-point, 16-rebound performance against Saint Francis (Pa.). The Texas native felt at home when she went to Coppin State on her recruiting visit. 

“I’d never been far away from home before, so the process of coming here was different,” Lawrence said. ”When coach [Jermaine Woods] recruited me, he was like a second dad throughout the summer. He was somebody I knew I could go to for any and everything. He’s always there for me, and I feel like he’s always there for me. I wanted to play for somebody I felt like I could trust.”

Another newcomer impacting Coppin State is 6’0 redshirt junior guard Faith Blackstone, the Eagles’ leading scorer at 14.9 points per game. Blackstone had 19 points and eight rebounds in a setback to Syracuse. She also scored 22 points in a win over Saint Francis. Blackstone came to Coppin State after leading Community College of Baltimore County – Essex to an NJCAA national championship. She was named NJCAA National Player of the Year and First Team All-American.

Also making a significant impact in Coppin State’s win over Pitt was 5’9 redshirt junior guard Tiffany Hammond, who finished with 15 points (all on 3-pointers) in the first half.

Coppin State’s December will be highlighted by hosting reigning national champion LSU on Wednesday, Dec. 20. Hopefully, Baltimore native Angel Reese will be playing.  

UMES Soaring Early

UMES is 3-3 after defeating George Washington, 62-59, and UMBC, 70-54. In between the two wins, the Hawks had their road game at Towson suspended due to condensation on the floor. The Hawks were ahead, 21-19, when play was stopped. A date to resume the game will be determined at a later time.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish the game, but the decision to suspend play is in the best interest of the safety of our players,” UMES head coach Fred Batchelor said on the UMES athletics website. “Luckily, the officials noticed water coming from the roof and told both teams about the issue. While this is a strange situation, I am glad nobody was hurt, and we mutually agreed to suspend play.”

One Hawk flying high has been 5’7 senior guard Zamara Haynes, who paces a balanced attack with a 13.0 point per game average, which is fifth in the MEAC. She has scored double figures in five of UMES’s six games. Haynes scored 17 points against George Washington and 23 against UMBC. 

Also averaging double figures for UMES are 5’6 sophomore guard Jála Bannerman (10.8 points per game) and 5’5 graduate student Mya Thomas (10.5). Thomas leads the Hawks with 17 assists and 11 steals. Bannerman has made 14 3-pointers and is shooting a ridiculous 46.7 percent from 3-point distance. Ariana Sewell, a 6’2 junior center, leads UMES with 6.5 rebounds per contest.

UMES, second in the MEAC in scoring at 64.7 points per game, will have a tough December that includes road games against Seton Hall on Dec. 2 and East Carolina on Dec. 4. 

Bethune Cookman Ballin’

Bethune-Cookman enjoyed a terrific time in Atlanta, winning both games at the Georgia State Classic. Winners of four straight, the Wildcats beat Georgia State, 56-48, and Bradley, 64-57. Preseason First-Team All-SWAC Chanel Wilson, a 5’7 graduate guard, was large and in charge for the Wildcats in Atlanta, averaging 15 points in both games. Wilson had 20 points and nine rebounds in the win over Bradley. But the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 16 points per game was far from a one-woman show. 

A 5’9 junior guard, Kerrighan Dunn, scored 16 points against Georgia State and 11 against Bradley. Kyla Clark, a 6’3 junior center, grabbed 11 rebounds against Georgia State and scored nine points in the win over Bradley. Dunn is BCU’s second-leading scorer, at 9.6 points per game. Chanelle McDonald, a 6’2 junior forward, also adds 9.2 points per contest for the Wildcats. McDonald’s brilliant 24-point performance during a 74-72 victory over Iona started BCU’s current winning streak. 

Jackson State Rolling Early

The SWAC preseason favorites earned a significant victory by beating St. John’s 60-56 of the Big East in its final game in Puerto Rico last Saturday. The Tigers had three players score in double figures, led by 6’5 graduate senior center Daphane White, who had 16 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks. Ti’lan Boler, a 6’1 senior guard, scored 14 points, and 6’1 graduate senior guard Miya Crump added 12 points. 

That victory perfectly complements a 63-54 road win over Southeast Louisiana, the Southland preseason favorite. The Tigers were ranked 21st in last week’s Mid-Major Top 25 poll. 

White leads the 5-1 Tigers with an 11.5 point per game average. She also is second on the team in rebounding, averaging 5.7 boards per outing. Crump scores at an 11.2 point-per-game clip. Adding to Jackson State’s balance has been Boler’s 9.8 points per game average, and 6’6 graduate senior center Angel Jackson is scoring 8.0 points per game and pulling down a team-high 5.8 rebounds per contest. 

Jackson State will be tested in December with road games at Kansas State (Dec. 1), Oregon State (Dec. 9), Mississippi State (Dec. 14), Miami (Dec. 20), and Texas (Dec. 27). These are the only games Jackson State will play in December.  

MEAC Crossovers

North Carolina Central 5’8 redshirt senior Kimeira Burks leads the conference in scoring at 15.3 points per game. Burks had a memorable week, which earned her Player of the Week recognition after averaging 22.0 points in three games a career-high 34 points against Mid-Atlantic Christian in a 132-22 victory. She made a NCCU school record 10 3-pointers in that game … South Carolina State leads the MEAC in blocked shots, averaging 3.43 rejections per game. … Delaware State’s 6’0 freshman forward McKenzie Stewart grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds in a loss to Stony Brook on Nov. 22.

SWAC Dimes

Mississippi Valley State beat McNeese State, 85-82, for its first victory of the season on Nov. 16 behind double-doubles from 6’1 junior forward Amberly Brown (23 points, 11 rebounds) and 5’7 junior guard Sh’Diamond McKnight (18, 10). … Texas Southern defeated North American University, 109-67 behind 5’9 junior guard Daeja Holmes’s 26 points on Nov. 14. … The 109 points were the most points scored by TSU since defeating Tougaloo College 106-46 on Jan. 8. 2002. … Alabama State rallied from a 15-point deficit at the end of three quarters to beat Tennessee Tech 62-56 in overtime on Nov. 18. … Asianae Nicholson’s double-double (10 points, 17 rebounds) powered the Bulldogs to their first win of the season … After beginning with a brutal road trip to Baylor, Texas, Purdue, Miami, and Iowa State, reigning SWAC tournament champion Southern hosts Northwestern State on Sunday, Dec. 3, in its home opener.

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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