February 3, 2024 

Non-Division I transfers are making their mark in the A-10 this season

The transfer portal era extends further than the Division I ranks

Entering the 2023-24 season, 23 players on 10 Atlantic 10 rosters had experience playing outside the Division I level, including junior college (NJCAA), Division II and Division III. Of the 23, 14 entered the A-10 this season. All but two of those players, Madison Buford of George Washington and Nafatoumata Haidara of Saint Louis, transferred directly from a non-Division I institution.

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While there are misconceptions about junior colleges and the student-athletes that choose to attend them, George Washington head coach Caroline McCombs knows there are many reasons why someone’s path might include a stop at a junior college. 

“The typical junior college players that we’ve gotten have been [academic] qualifiers out of high school and they’ve landed at a junior college for different reasons,” she told The Next. “For Nya [Lok], she didn’t even know about coming to the [United] States and all of those opportunities that could be afforded to her. So it was just not being exposed to even college recruiting at that point in time. And so when you look at those players, and you can look at Nya’s stat sheets from her freshman year at the junior college to how much better she got as a sophomore … just understanding that path and that she’s continued to have that success here.”

PlayerPrevious SchoolPrevious School LevelTransferred ToSeasons at Current School*
Naëlle BernardSalt Lake City Community College NJCAADuquesne2
Taya DavisGarden City Community College & Odessa CollegeNJCAAFordham1
Ta’Viyanna HabibIndian River State CollegeNJCAAGeorge Mason1
Asjah InnissNorthwest Florida State College & North Carolina A&T State UniversityNJCAAGeorge Washington2
Madison BufordHampton, Colorado & Rend Lake CollegeNJCAAGeorge Washington1
Nya LokMidland CollegeNJCAAGeorge Washington3
Tiara BoldenEastern Arizona CollegeNJCAALa Salle1
Molly MasciantonioHoly Family UniversityDIILa Salle5**
Makayla MillerOuachita Baptist UniversityDIILa Salle1
Gabby TurcoSaint Anselm CollegeDIILa Salle1
Jolene ArmendarizSan Francisco State UniversityDIILa Salle1
Kristin WilliamsPensacola State CollegeNJCAAUMass2
Isabellah MiddletonSlippery Rock UniversityDIISt. Bonaventure1
Nadechka LaccenTyler Junior CollegeNJCAASt. Bonaventure2
Tianna JohnsonSeward County Community College NJCAASt. Bonaventure3
Payton FieldsWestern Nebraska Community CollegeNJCAASt. Bonaventure2
Bridget MonaghanUniversity of ScrantonDIIISaint Joseph’s1
Tierra SimonPearl River Community College and Prairie View A&M UniversityNJCAASaint Louis1
Marcavia ShaversPearl River Community CollegeNJCAASaint Louis1
Brooklyn GrayWabash Valley CollegeNJCAASaint Louis1
Nafatoumata HaidaraChicago State University and Hutchinson Community CollegeNJCAASaint Louis2
Valentina OjedaIndependence Community CollegeNJCAAVCU1
Natalia TondiFlorida Southwestern State CollegeNJCAAVCU1
*Including 2023-24.
**Redshirted the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules. 

For La Salle head coach Mountain MacGillivray, the increase in players with non-Division I playing experience on his team — four incoming transfers this year — means that he did not attract as many Division I transfers as he was looking for. 

“There’s a lot of good players out there,” he told The Next. “And … with kids getting an extra year [because of] COVID, I think the jucos [junior colleges] were highly underrecruited by the Power Five schools because a lot of the kids playing at [that] level were just kind of switching conferences, switching schools, where normally they would be snatching up the best [junior college players] on the market every year.”

Players have different reasons for going down non-Division I paths, such as it being the proper fit for them. But some also face difficulties in reaching the DI level, such as a lack of visibility from coaches and scouts as well as a limited number of offers to choose from. 

GW graduate student Nya Lok started playing basketball in Australia at around 15 or 16 years old and wasn’t familiar with college recruiting at the time. She chose Midland College, in part, because a former teammate from Australia thought it would be a good idea to play together again.

“I trusted her, her thought process of me coming to the States, and I kind of just agreed to that and never looked back since,” Lok told The Next

She averaged 8.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game as a freshman at Midland College in 2019-20 and averaged 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a sophomore. At GW, Lok has continued to grow and develop. This season, she is averaging Division I career highs of 10.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game. 

Duquesne junior Naëlle Bernard chose to come to the United States from France to be able to combine her schooling and basketball. “Back home, it’s really hard to manage going to school and playing basketball because we don’t play for schools, we play for club teams,” she told The Next. “… So I just really wanted to push through my basketball career as well as my school. So I thought that the U.S. could be a good option.”

Though Bernard started playing basketball when she was six years old, she wasn’t heavily recruited. “Juco was the only option I had, really,” she said. After redshirting her first year in the United States at South Plains College, a junior college in Texas, she was looking for a fresh start. A friend of hers had played for Salt Lake Community College head coach Marcilina Grayer and put Bernard in touch with Grayer. 

Saint Louis' Brooklyn Gray dribbles up the court with her right hand as Missouri State's Paige Rocca defends with her arms out.
Saint Louis’ Brooklyn Gray dribbles up the court as Missouri State’s Paige Rocca defends on Nov. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Saint Louis Athletics)

Saint Louis sophomore Brooklyn Gray was looking for the school that was the best fit for her, regardless of what other people thought. She came to the decision to attend Wabash Valley College, a junior college in Illinois, after a long discussion with her mother about whether she wanted to go right to playing Division I basketball or start at a junior college. 

When the United States began to shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UMass’ Kristin Williams was a junior in high school. She was excited to play AAU basketball in the summer and commit to a college in her senior year. Though she already had eight or nine offers, she wanted to see what another summer would bring.

“I committed to the [University of San Diego] just out of fear that I would lose the offer because COVID had hit,” she told The Next. “So I committed, and people did lose offers after that. A lot of my friends that I played against in high school told me that they wanted one school and [the school] backed out within a week.” 

Eventually, Williams realized that she wasn’t ready and decided to decommit. Williams went on to commit to Pensacola State College just two days before embarking on a cross-country move from California to the Florida Panhandle. “I think when I thought about [going to a junior college], I was like, okay … it’s only going to really help me,” she said. “… I think staying on the West Coast honestly wouldn’t have benefited me as much as going juco.”

St. Bonaventure senior Payton Fields committed to Western Nebraska Community College because it was her only full scholarship offer, and she wasn’t sure if she was going to get another with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. She also had built a good relationship with her future coach, Chad Gibney. 

“It was a little tough because we didn’t get to visit or anything, so I kind of went off, like, a whim and trusted what he was telling me,” she told The Next. “And it worked out overall, after everything. But it was kind of stressful during the process because I didn’t even know — I was scared that I wasn’t even going to be able to go play college basketball. And so I’m just grateful that it all ended up working out.”  

George Mason junior Ta’Viyanna Habib started playing basketball seriously as a high school freshman and almost quit the game after her senior year. Indian River State College head coach Jamarra Robinson called her, asked her to try playing at the school and said if she didn’t like it, she could go home. Habib noted that Robinson was the only coach who took the time to show how much she wanted her to come to the school. And by playing at Indian River, Habib eventually fell back in love with basketball. 

“Honestly, I think the coach I had in high school may have maybe changed [my] view of basketball. When I played in juco, the coach and I had a great relationship,” Habib told The Next. “She got to [know] me very well … [and] played a role of just making everything more fun and loving.” 

Though Habib didn’t see herself playing at the Division I level, she is proud of where her basketball journey has taken her. 

For La Salle graduate student Molly Masciantonio, who played her freshman year at Division II Holy Family University, it wasn’t about the level of play. She had Division I looks out of high school, but to her, going to a school that wanted her was more important than the level of competition.

“I always hoped — and you’re talking to many schools and you always hope [for] that, but … it kind of just happened and worked out the way it did. And I’m grateful for that at the end of the day,” she told The Next.

La Salle's Makayla Miller dribbles the ball with her left hand and looks to dribble against Virginia.
La Salle’s Makayla Miller looks to pass against Virginia in Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia on Dec. 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Sideline Photos)

Division II Ouachita Baptist University was one of two offers La Salle graduate student Makayla Miller had coming out of high school. She went with Ouachita because it would be better for her academically and was a little closer to home. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to play at the Division I level.

“Back then I feel like I didn’t take it as serious — like, I didn’t see the potential that I had,” she told The Next. Though she knew after her sophomore year she was capable of playing at the Division I level, she stayed at Ouachita in part to finish her degree. 

When Lok started playing basketball, she wasn’t sure where it would take her, but she knew if she was constantly working hard, something would come. “I did not know that I would be at a college level where I am today,” she said. “It was kind of just like a kind of go with the flow — when people suggested things I wasn’t afraid to kind of give it a go. And so that ended up being my journey, and I’m happy I kind of went with that.”

Slippery Rock was St. Bonaventure redshirt junior Isabellah Middleton’s only full scholarship offer. Though she always wanted to play Division I basketball, she wasn’t sure she would get the opportunity to. 

“Honestly I didn’t ever think that I was going to be DI just because a lot of like, coaches always [said] I’m undersized, or I didn’t — either I didn’t shoot enough, or it was always just something,” Middleton told The Next. “So I was like, okay, maybe DII is for me. But yeah, as I kept going, I was like, oh, I can really see myself being a Division I player.”

She found success quickly at the Division I level, reaching double figures in her second game of the season. She is averaging 9.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game on the year. 

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Reasons for transferring

Both Gray and Williams only planned to attend a junior college for one year, expecting to move to the Division I level after that. 

From the beginning of the season, Gray’s coach at Wabash Valley College was helping her find a school to go to. Before she even spoke to anyone at Saint Louis, her coach told her that was where she was going to go. 

Williams could have stayed for another year, but she wanted to play at a Division I school sooner. “I think everyone’s mindset is I’m going to go DI; I want to go DI. So that was my mindset,” she said. “I [thought to myself], I just need to ball out and do really well my first year at juco and grow.”

She averaged 13.4 points per game at Pensacola State College, and after averaging 1.2 points in 4.8 minutes per game in her first year at UMass, Williams is averaging 12.0 points, 1.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game this season. 

Some players chose to transfer for academic reasons, including Lok and Habib, who finished their associate’s degrees and were ready to move on to their bachelor’s degrees. Though Habib had Division I offers after her first season at Indian River State College, she didn’t feel like she was ready and was comfortable with her coach. So she stayed until she felt like she was prepared for the next level. 

After Miller graduated from Ouachita, the school didn’t have the master’s degree she was looking for. She also saw it as an opportunity to leave home and see if she could play at the next level. 

While Fields could have returned to Western Nebraska Community College for an additional season due to the pandemic, she instead chose to move to the Division I level so she could have three years to adjust to the level of play. In her second season at St. Bonaventure, Fields is averaging more points (5.5 per game) and rebounds (2.6) per game than she did last season and is a key contributor, primarily off the bench. 

Importance of coaching relationships in recruiting 

For several A-10 transfers, coaching relationships were key in deciding what school they would transfer to. “What influenced me the most was how the coaches felt about me,” Bernard said. “I could tell [the Duquesne coaches] really wanted me. I wanted to go somewhere where I was going to play and where I was wanted. And from the jump, Coach [Dan] Burt made me really, really comfortable. [It] just felt like a family from the first day.

“[Assistant] coach [Vanessa Abel] is also a really, really big reason why I committed to Duquesne — just because she’s a young female coach, she played pro and she played for Duquesne, so she kind of has the path that I want to follow.”

St. Bonaventure's Isabellah Middleton looks up at the basket as she prepares to shoot.
St. Bonaventure’s Isabellah Middleton looks to shoot. (Photo credit: St. Bonaventure Athletics)

Middleton averaged 14.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 2.1 steals over two seasons at Division II Slippery Rock University, but St. Bonaventure head coach Jim Crowley was one of the only coaches who noticed her game and ability. While other coaches who were recruiting her wanted her to do workouts and jump through hoops, Crowley didn’t think that putting her through a workout would show him anything.

“He just had a lot of faith in me,” Middleton said. “So I respected that.”

Fields followed Gibney, her former junior college head coach, when he took an assistant coaching job with St. Bonaventure prior to the 2022-23 season. She trusted him and wanted someone in her corner as she took on the challenge of a new school. She decided to stay when Crowley took over because she trusted his vision of how he wanted to run the program. 

Having never left Florida before coming to Mason, Habib focused on the relationships with coaches and having a family environment. “My biggest thing was coaching: who was going to take the time to actually get to know me as a person, who’s going to help me develop, who’s going to push me past my comfort zone and things like that,” she said. “So instantly I fell in love with the coaching staff here at Mason.”

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A-10 coaches’ perspectives 

For Saint Louis head coach Rebecca Tillett, creating a roster is all about having as much diversity in experiences as possible. 

“I’ve seen more coaches look at potential Division II players,” she told The Next. “I mean, all of us that have been in the game a long time know that the best Division II and Division III teams can come into DI and win games. … So I think because of the transfer portal, people are more open-minded to, where can you find the best fit for your team’s need?

“And there is value in finding players that have had some level of college experience. I mean, for us, specifically to our junior college players, [they] are different than a freshman in that they have played in games.”

Though MacGillivray understands each coach has a different philosophy, he sees recruits from Division II schools and junior colleges as more mature and experienced than freshmen.

“When you’re bringing in those players that are a little bit older, a little bit wiser, had a little bit more experience, those first one, two years out of high school, there’s a lot of growth that occurs there,” he said. “You learn so much in those two years, and so I just think … a shift in college basketball overall is having older teams.”

For George Mason head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis, junior college transfers will always be a part of the equation because they have collegiate basketball experience and are used to the level of rigor in college academics. She believes this gives them a leg up and allows them to impact the program immediately. 

Tillett, MacGillivray, Blair-Lewis and McCombs all plan to continue to recruit outside of the Division I level. Tillett believes that junior college players bring a sense of gratitude and an underdog mentality to the program. She plans to continue to be open-minded to student-athletes coming from anywhere as long as they fit the culture and want to compete at the highest level for championships. 

After Lok’s success, McCombs will continue to recruit from junior colleges and already has a student-athlete from one signed for next season. 

Blair-Lewis plans to continue to recruit to her team’s needs, wherever the fit may be. “I think we’ve done a great job this year of addressing what the needs were to be able to have a successful season this year, and Ta’Viyanna completely fit that bill for us,” she told The Next. “And so, sure, if there are other junior college players that fill a need that we’d like, we definitely will be recruiting [them].”

Habib averages 9.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game this season, and Blair-Lewis described her as a “three-level scorer” and “very good defender.” “She uses her body well in the post, even though she’s a little bit undersized in there,” Blair-Lewis said. “And she has great energy. She has a great attitude for the game. She has a great motor for the game.”

Similarly, MacGillivray said, “Wherever there’s a player that can contribute in the Atlantic 10 and help La Salle women’s basketball, we’re going to be there trying to show them what we have to offer.”

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Tillett and MacGillivray both got their start in recruiting non-Division I players with just one standout player. While at Longwood, Tillett recruited Tra’Dayja Smith from Trinity Valley Community College. After the success of Smith’s career at Longwood, Tillett hired her as an assistant coach at Saint Louis for her offensive mind. Tillett also started to keep her eyes open to the variety of places to recruit from.

MacGillivray described his start with non-Division I players as an “accident.” After they arrived at La Salle, MacGillivray and associate head coach Chris Day were interested in recruiting Masciantonio, who attended the same high school as they had. They didn’t want to recruit over her Holy Family commitment, but when she entered the transfer portal after her freshman season, she reached out to them and they knew it would be a good fit.

“She had a little bit of an adjustment her first year and then kind of hit the ground running the next two seasons into this year and has played really well,” MacGillivray said. “So after we saw what Molly could do for us, when the transfer portal really became a thing every year, in the spring if we had any openings, we made sure we looked at all of the available players in Division I and Division II and that we thought could help us. And it just so happened that we ended up with three Division II kids this year.”

MacGillivray believes that to be the most successful, you have to recruit any available prospect who will make the team better. “You’ve got to make sure you have the biggest talent pool to draw from, and that includes Division II and juco and kids internationally and everything else,” he said. 

Regardless of the level he is recruiting from, MacGillivray knows it’s important to do his homework on student-athletes. This includes talking to their coaches, making sure they’re succeeding academically and having conversations with the student-athletes themselves to make sure they’re on the same page. He sees the same challenges recruiting from outside of Division I and from high school, noting the importance of being aware of the level of competition.

“Not all high schools are created the same, not all jucos are created the same, and you really have to do your homework to be aware of the talent level they’re playing against, so you’re not fooled by a kid performing well against lesser competition,” he said. “And vice versa by a kid maybe you think underperforms and you might not recruit, but the competition level’s really high and they might still be a very good player.”

In the future, MacGillivray isn’t sure what to expect in terms of his recruiting outside of Division I. But he expects the market to get tighter across the board as players with an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 graduate. He believes that, with fewer prospects available, coaches will need to stretch their nets wider to attract prospects who will help them win in the A-10. 

Players’ transition to the A-10 

Bernard wasn’t nervous when she got to Duquesne because she always knew she’d end up at the Division I level. “It was more excitement — excitement to be there to finally start what I envisioned for so long,” she said. “And yeah … I had to adjust on certain levels, but I think I did pretty well at that.” In her second season as a Duke, Bernard is averaging 9.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. 

For Gray, the easiest part of her transition to Saint Louis was how understanding and patient everyone was with her. The patience of her teammates has paid off, and Gray is averaging 11.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. 

La Salle’s Masciantonio had a similar experience when she transferred to La Salle. Though she didn’t know what to expect or how she’d fit in, everyone made her feel at home. In her fourth season on the court as an Explorer, she is averaging 8.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game. 

Though Miller didn’t start the season the way she wanted to, she made an effort to continue to grow and work on her game. In addition to her skill, she realized she also needed to use her head and play smarter. “The most difficult part … [is] the height of the girls,” she said. “Usually when I was at the DII level, I could just drive around everybody — just get to the basket whenever I liked. Here that’s not usually [the case]. You really have to be smart [about] when to drive in [and] when not to.” 

Despite not being happy with how her season started, Miller is second on the team in scoring and averages 10.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game. 

After a 63-61 win over UMass on Jan. 31, MacGillivray praised Miller’s 14-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist, four-steal and one-block performance. 

“That kid’s a pro and she plays so hard,” he told reporters. “She just is tough and she’s physical … Learning a new system was hard on her, like it is on everybody else. … But hats off to her. She’s played well most of the season. Tonight was her best game. I mean, she won the game for us.” 

Advice to others looking to transfer to Division I 

Bernard wants others to believe in themselves because everyone’s path is different. “If you give yourself the keys to succeed, you can always end up going wherever you want to go,” she said. “You just have to believe in your path and don’t compare yourself to others and just build your own way.”

Gray offered similar advice, noting that there will be hard nights and nights you might want to quit, but it’s important to trust yourself and those around you and be patient enough to wait for your time to come. She’d recommend playing at the junior college level to anyone looking to play collegiately.

“Even if you are at DI and you’re questioning if the school is right for you or if you’re questioning how you feel, I would even recommend going to juco then because juco is kind of like a reset. … It [gives you] time to think and really analyze and you just get to play. You just get to hoop and do it with people who have the same wants as you.”

Habib’s advice was to put in the work to make the most of your opportunity at the Division I level — to push through the struggles and pick a school that wants to see you succeed regardless of the level. 

UMass' Kristin Williams looks to drive while dribbing with her right hand. Saint Louis' Kennedy Calhoun slides her feet as she tries to defend her A-10 rival.
UMass’ Kristin Williams looks to drive against Saint Louis’ Kennedy Calhoun in an A-10 game in the Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass., on Jan. 6, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Williams believes school selection is important as well. “I think that the Panhandle Conference is the hardest juco conference in the country,” she said. “And I think that if you really want to go DI, then you have to find a good juco.

“Whether that will be Northwest Florida State, and last year, [Last-Tear] Poa came out of [there] and went to LSU and won a [national championship]. So I think it depends on what school you go to, juco-wise. Like, jucos in my hometown were not going to lead me to where I wanted to be. So I think the best advice would be go to a juco where you know you’ll be successful and also find a good school after, whether that be DI or DII.”

Masciantonio would offer the advice of working hard and being the best version of yourself, while also being a team player. She said, “[I] feel like when you’re trying to make the transition from DII to DI, [a] lot of coaches don’t just look at your stats individually. Stats play a [large] part, but they also look at the [team’s] record and how much of a leader you are — stuff like that.” 

Middleton’s advice would be to just make the jump to the Division I level and take the chance, even if it’s scary.

“There’s always the fear of the unknown, but I mean, you never know,” she said. “The answer is always going to be no if you don’t try it. The worst somebody can say is no. So I would say just do it.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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