An HBCU Gameday Special Report
It was quiet in the bowels of Spectrum Arena in Charlotte during the afternoon of March 24. CIAA Player of The Year Lady Walker peered hard at the stat sheet following her team’s 81-76 loss to Johnson C. Smith in the semifinals of the CIAA Tournament.
Two of her teammates consoled each other, their faces flush with disappointment. Their coach, AnnMarie Gilbert, stood quietly in her bright yellow dress as her team prepared to go in and talking about falling short in a tournament that looked to be theirs a month earlier.
On Friday, exactly one month later, Virginia Union will play Ashland for the NCAA Division II women’s national title.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for the ladies from Richmond the past couple of months. After starting the season 17-0 despite the loss of 2016 D2 Player of The Year Kiana Johnson, VUU went 5-4 over its last nine games before the NCAA Tournament, including the loss to JCSU.
Following that game, Gilbert made the tough decision to not bring leading scorer Brittany Jackson along as the team made its title run. While she didn’t expound as to exactly why Jackson wasn’t playing, rumors of discipline issues and internal conflict leaked out during the course of the season for the team once ranked second in the nation.
“I believe in destiny,” Gilbert said. “Sometimes you find your destiny in different ways. It took a lot of courage for us to tell one of our better players that you’re not gonna make this trip. It brought our team closer together.”
Gilbert, who led the team to the NCAA Elite Eight in her first season, says her team is now playing its best basketball of the season.
“Our team didn’t miss a beat. They weren’t thinking ‘oh coach, we need this kid.’ They’re thinking, ‘good job coach, now lets get back to business.’ And they bought in even more than they had when that player was with us.”
Indeed, VUU has found players to step up and fill the void left by the loss of the CIAA’s leading scorer. Four players scored in double figures vs. IUP, Alexis Johnson put up 22 points and 11 rebounds against Columbus State in the Elite Eight, and Ashley Smith scored 28 points in Wednesday’s 86-81 win over Cal Baptist.
But the Lady Panther who holds it all together is Walker, a Cleveland native who is enjoying gets the chance to play her final collegiate games in nearby Dayton. Walker put up 18 points and 19 rebounds while getting to play in front of her family.
“The big crowd behind us, that’s my people that came from Cleveland. Just to play in front of them being so far away and them not being able to come and travel to games…like this is big,” Walker said. “This moment, I really appreciate it.”
With her team down 48-39 at halftime in the Final Four, Gilbert, who also hails from Ohio, asked the team what kind of defense they though team should run in the second half. The senior spoke up and her coach listened.
“Lady Walker said, ‘coach, I think we should play zone,’ and that was the right call,” Gilbert said. “Our senior that has put us on her back for most of the year came through and Virginia Union came through.”
And now, VUU is one game away from winning its second national title in women’s hoops, to go along with the three it owns in men’s basketball. And if they get it done, they’ll have two Ohioans to thank for bringing the title back to Richmond.
“This was a goal. We talked about getting back to Ohio and playing for a national championship. And sometimes you say it just in theory. As coaches we always say ‘oh we’re gonna win a national championship.’ We’re actually playing for one.”