March 12, 2024 

HBCU notebook: Jackson State’s Reed continuing to raise the bar of excellence

The Tigers have been the gold standard under coach Tomekia Reed

With a rich tapestry of accomplishments in recent years, including winning its fifth consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) regular-season crown, the Jackson State women’s basketball program has been the gold standard under sixth-year head coach Tomekia Reed.

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The Tigers completed an undefeated run through the rugged conference for the second time in three years. They have won 83 of their last 87 contests against SWAC opponents — including 32 in a row against conference foes. In addition to tying a single-season school record for victories with 23, Jackson State also earned a vote in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in program history, a testament to its recent success.

Reed wasn’t super focused on that achievement initially, because the Tigers were preparing for a road game at Prairie View A&M, where their 34-game conference winning streak ended last season. She was happy, though, especially after South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley used her massive social media platform to recognize the Tigers. 

“I was on cloud 1500,” Reed said. “Dawn’s comment touched my heart. I follow her and watch her. She’s like everything to me. To know she’s watching says a lot. We’re standing beside some big names, and I was like, wow. At Jackson State, I want to do things that have never been done before.”

“We didn’t celebrate as a team, but I celebrated as a coach. I was extremely shocked, and when my SID, Taylor, sent me the email, I was smiling ear to ear. I didn’t want my girls to be focused on the Associated Press vote, but I wanted them locked in on Prairie View A&M because of what happened there last year.”

Jackson State’s unprecedented level of excellence is worthy of celebration and appreciation. Last Thursday the Tigers took a few minutes to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Yet they understand that a bigger prize is on the horizon if they can win three games this week during the SWAC Tournament in Birmingham.

“The trophy was pretty, nice, and extremely heavy,” Reed said of the sizable regular-season championship award. “Unfortunately, it will not get you to the NCAA Tournament. I am sorry to take the moment away. All that matters now is what we can do in Birmingham. Our team understands what happened last year in the tournament. That’s been our driving force the entire year. It’s been one game at a time for our team.”

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The Tigers were stung by losing to Southern at the buzzer in the SWAC semifinals last year. This season they have been a focused force of destruction, winning 18 games by double digits. After a winless December against Power Five opponents, Jackson State brings an 18-game winning streak into the SWAC tournament.  

Jackson State was one of six Division I programs that finished a perfect run through its conference schedule. The other schools were Connecticut, Fairfield, South Carolina, South Dakota State and Gonzaga. 

“It’s not easy,” said Reed. “It’s hard because we are everybody’s championship game. Last Saturday, Mississippi Valley State came into our place to try and spoil our season and make it hard for us. We have to get our players ready for that, so when we look at the film, we point out everything they did wrong because we don’t want them to settle.”

Reed and her coaching staff didn’t rest on their previous success this season. Inside the 18-0 conference record, the Tigers faced some internal adversity. They suffered a season-ending injury to Daphane White, which forced Reed to adjust her usual coaching tactics and become more creative. 

While you never hate to lose any player, White’s injury transformed the Tigers into a stronger squad with more quickness, balanced scoring, and plenty of depth. Opponents could never key on a specific player to slow down because the Tigers proved to be more than the sum of their talents.

The downside to the balance is that Jackson State rarely received weekly Player of the Week recognition from the conference. The Tigers were stacking victories as other programs claimed weekly honors.

Jackson State’s top four scorers this season took turns in the spotlight. Andriana Avent (11.8 points per game), Miya Crump (11.6), and Ti’Ian Boler (11.5) all averaged at least 11 points. Angel Jackson, who adjusted her game the most, finished the season with 10.1 points per game. 

“I’ve had a lot of great teams in my program, but this team has been special,” Reed said. “We are guard-orientated with great guards. I am small and slim in the post, and that’s always been my go-to position. I had to change my coaching style. I had to change our offense, make adjustments on defense and do things differently. It’s funny; they say if it’s not broken, then don’t fix it. I am proud of the team to have made the adjustments.”

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Point guard Keshuna Luckett was the engine that fueled the Tigers throughout the season. She’s seventh in the SWAC in assists per game (4.0). She handed out at least five assists 10 times this season. 

“You can’t talk championship without mentioning Keshuna,” Reed said. “She’s the glue of our team. When she’s good, we’re great. Angel protects the rim for us, but Angel didn’t like contact. However, when Daphane got hurt, Angel said, ‘I got it,’ and you can run the same post plays for her. Then, when we started running them, Angel started scoring. She accepted a new role and has been outstanding in that role.”

Jackson’s 79 blocked shots are first in the SWAC. She’s eighth nationally in blocked shots per game (2.7). 

When you’re successful, other programs begin to copy the blueprint. The SWAC has enjoyed a banner season, especially during nonconference, as a few teams claimed signature victories. Grambling State defeated Arizona State. The University of Arkansas–Pine Bluff won a road game at in-state foe Arkansas. Southern rallied for a memorable road win at Oklahoma. 

Reed entered the conference with a recruiting philosophy of going after experienced players from junior colleges. That worked. Now, with all the coaches having access to the transfer portal and signing high-major talents, the SWAC is a battle each night, which makes Jackson State’s sustained excellence even more impressive. 

Two years ago, behind the brilliance of Ameshya Williams-Holliday, whom the Indiana Fever drafted, Jackson State led LSU by 10 points in the fourth quarter in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Williams-Holiday was the first HBCU player drafted. Boler, Luckett and Crump played in that game and are hungry for another chance to get to the Dance stage. 

“When we came into the conference, my staff and I changed the conference’s dynamic from a recruiting perspective,” Reed said. My first recruiting class had juco players, high school players and players who were on the team before I got here. We killed the portal, and now the new coaches in our conference are recruiting like that. We are knocking down walls, and our conference is getting some respect.”

Jackson State is preparing for its most challenging few days of the season. This is the week it has been training for all summer. This is the week why Jackson State did extra repetitions in the weight room. The Tigers’ tournament journey begins against eighth-seeded Prairie View A&M and the SWAC’s third-leading scorer, Ryann Payne, in the quarterfinals.

Prairie View A&M led Jackson State by a point heading into the fourth quarter in its most recent meeting, on March 4. The Tigers battled back to win 75-65. Should Jackson State conquer its first challenge, it will meet either fourth-seeded UAPB or fifth-seeded Alabama A&M in the semifinals. 

UAPB and Alabama A&M feature two of the best players in the conference: Zaay Green (UAPB) and Amiah Simmons (AAMU). Green finished second in the SWAC in points per game (16.2), and Simmons was fourth (15.1). The Golden Lions and Bulldogs split their meetings this season, with each team winning at home.

Second-seeded Grambling State, winners of 10 straight games, anchors the bottom part of the bracket. First-year head coach Courtney Simmons led the Tigers to their first 20-win season since 2003. Grambling State ended the season with a 21-8 overall record. The Tigers will open against seventh-seeded Florida A&M. One of the games of the year was the Tigers’ triple-overtime victory over the Rattlers on Jan. 15.

The final quarterfinal contest matches reigning SWAC Tournament champion and third-seeded Southern against sixth-seeded Alcorn State. In its 63-58 victory over Southern on Feb. 5, Jackson State trailed 50-34 entering the fourth quarter. Jackson State outscored the Jaguars, 28-9, to claim the win. 

Jackson State thrives when facing adversity, and those experiences will be crucial to enjoying a happier ending this season.

“We understand it won’t be smooth sailing,” Reed said. “I gave them off on Sunday and sent them many text messages. Our team is locked in and knows they will get everybody’s best shot. We want our team to come in and own the ground they place their feet on. Now, it’s win or go home. This is what we’ve been building for all season.”

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Sowing seeds of possible discontent

Of course, all this could be moot if Jackson State and Norfolk State don’t win the SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournaments, respectively. Each program is favored to win its conference tournament. In Charlie Creme’s latest ESPN Bracketology both programs are projected as No. 15 seeds. A few more conference upsets could move both up to No. 14, but the bottom line is both programs are better than their seed projections.

Reed and Norfolk State head Larry Vickers have constructed powerful programs through solid recruiting, great relationships and a culture of excellence. Jackson State has more robust metrics than Norfolk State, which are part of the committee’s criteria when evaluating programs. While we know some seeding decisions are made regarding geographical location and distance from campus, Jackson State and Norfolk State should be strongly considered for higher seeds. 

Jackson State has a victory over St. John’s of the Big East. The Tigers played all Power Five opponents in December and held their own. They adjusted after White’s injury and finished the season with an 18-game winning streak. As noted above, the SWAC as a conference earned some significant nonconference triumphs, and the top of the conference is as strong as it has been in a long while. 

The hard part is that sometimes their conferences are held against them, dragging down their overall NET ranking and strength-of-schedule metrics. For example, the MEAC has four teams ranked 300 or below in the NET, while the SWAC has five in that territory. 

Norfolk State is the only MEAC team ranked among the top 200. The Spartans have a respectable 121 NET, while the next best MEAC program is Howard, with a 227 NET. Vickers played a quality schedule, but unfortunately, many of the teams expected to be good, like Drexel (166 NET), Wake Forest (130), Radford (289) and Appalachian State (188), didn’t have the years they had hoped for. 

“It’s an interesting science to scheduling,” Vickers told The Next following Norfolk State’s victory at Coppin State last month. “For us, we’re still new to this. Last year, the 16 line was where we needed to be as a program. When you play South Carolina, Dawn Staley says amazing things about your players and program that give you some team some national recognition. We don’t want to play South Carolina every year.”

The committee should consider that Norfolk State played two nonconference home games. The Spartans lost to East Tennessee State without its second-leading scorer, Kierra Wheeler, on a neutral court. Junior Diamond Johnson didn’t play in Norfolk State’s first 10 games, in which it compiled a 7-3 record. The Spartans are 17-2 — including a current 12-game winning streak — since Johnson became eligible to play on Dec. 15 at Auburn.

Lastly, a regular-season game between Jackson State and Norfolk State would be amazing next season when the HBCU Classics are held. Somebody should make that happen. Both programs have been consistently ranked in the Mid-Major Top 25 poll all year. The Tigers are 14th, and the Spartans are 16th.

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MEAC madness

Norfolk State will look to repeat as MEAC Tournament champion. Beginning Wednesday, the MEAC Tournament will be played at the venerable Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia.

Norfolk State opens the tournament with eighth-seeded South Carolina State on Wednesday at noon. Norfolk State established a school record for the best winning percentage (92.9) since joining the MEAC in 1998-99. Norfolk State has beaten South Carolina State 13 consecutive times.

Should the Spartans prevail, they will play Friday in the semifinals against the survivor of Thursday’s fourth-seeded Coppin State and fifth-seeded Maryland Eastern Shore contest. The Maryland rivals split their two meetings this season, each winning on their home floor.

Howard finished as the second seed and will begin the tournament against seventh-seeded Morgan State on Wednesday. Howard swept the Bears, winning 54-51 in Baltimore and 70-47 at home. Howard has won four of the last five meetings against Morgan State.

Third-seeded North Carolina Central will meet sixth-seeded Delaware State on Thursday afternoon. They split their two meetings, with each team winning on the road. Delaware State won the last matchup, 75-64, in overtime.

The championship will be played at 4 p.m. on Saturday on ESPN+ and reair on Sunday, March 17, at 8 a.m. on ESPNU.

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Coastal storming

Hampton begins the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) tournament against Hofstra on Wednesday at 2 p.m. The entire tournament will be played at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. The Pirates won three games this season. Two of their wins were against Hofstra, 67-62, on Jan. 28 at the Hampton Convocation Center and March 1, with a 48-42 win in Hempstead, New York.

Camryn Hill leads the Lady Pirates in scoring with 14.5 points per game, which is eighth in the conference. Hill scored 17 points in the first win over Hofstra as Hampton forced 33 turnovers. Cheyenne Talbot added 15 points. Talbot and Amyah Reaves combine to average 16.3 points per game for Hampton.

Stony Brook won the regular-season title outright and will be the top seed in the championship. The defending CAA champion, Monmouth, will be seeded second after ending the year on a seven-game winning streak. Charleston won a program record 13 CAA games to earn the third seed and went 2-0 against North Carolina A&T, which also had 13 league victories and is seeded fourth, collecting the final bye into the quarterfinals.

North Carolina A&T will play its first CAA Tournament game on Friday at 2:30 p.m. against either fifth-seeded William & Mary, Hampton or Hofstra. The Aggies went 4-0 combined against those schools this season. Junior Jordyn Dorsey is 12th in the conference in scoring (13.2).

North Carolina A&T seniors D’Mya Tucker and Levossie Taylor would like to bookend their careers with championships. They helped the Aggies win the MEAC as freshmen, and now they want to add a CAA crown as seniors.  

Teams to watch

Beyond the top two seeds, here are two teams from each of the three conferences that could make a run to the championship game.

SWAC: Southern and Florida A&M

MEAC: Coppin State and Maryland-Eastern Shore

CAA: Towson and North Carolina A&T

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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