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How Jackson State women’s coach Tomekia Reed brought the team back to its winning ways

The Lady Tigers carry a 21-game win streak into the NCAA tournament

When Tomekia Reed interviewed for the women’s head-coaching position at Jackson State University in 2018, she spoke in-depth about the program’s rich tradition, history and dominance in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Despite not having any prior Division I head-coaching experience, she was confident she could restore the program to the top spot in the SWAC, where it had previously won seven regular-season and conference tournament championships since 1982.

Reed had witnessed the program’s success firsthand as an assistant under former Lady Tigers coach Denise Taylor from 2006 to 2009, and was an integral part of the team’s two SWAC regular-season titles, SWAC tournament title and a 2008 NCAA tournament berth with Taylor.

“When I interviewed, I told them, ‘We got to get Jackson State back to where it was when I was the assistant coach,’ ” said Reed, who before returning to Jackson State also had assistant coaching stops at Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette and New Orleans, and was head coach of the Hinds Community College (her alma mater) women’s basketball team. “We gotta get back to winning championships [and] being No. 1 in the conference. That’s one of the things that drew them to me. We had already had previous success.”

Now in her fourth season as the Lady Tigers’ head coach, Reed has won SWAC Coach of the Year twice and has led JSU to three consecutive regular-season conference titles, back-to-back SWAC tournament titles and a second straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Her No. 14 seed Lady Tigers ( 23-6, 18-0 SWAC) will face No. 3 seed LSU in a first-round matchup in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Saturday.

In last Saturday’s SWAC tournament championship game, Jackson State defeated Alabama State 101-80 to complete an undefeated conference schedule. In fact, Reed is one of only five coaches in both men’s and women’s Division I basketball whose teams went undefeated in conference play this season. The others are Princeton’s Carla Berube and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer on the women’s side, and Murray State’s Matt McMahon and South Dakota State’s Eric Henderson on the men’s side.

Tomekia Reed (center) and the Lady Tigers celebrate punching their ticket to the Big Dance after winning the SWAC tournament championship on March 12.

Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We played great all year,” said senior guard Dayzsha Rogan, last season’s SWAC Player of the Year. “We played tough SEC schools. I think we were very prepared to go undefeated. We worked really hard all year. We have some adversity, we go against the refs including the other players, but we’ve had a great year and we had a great team. So I’m just proud of my team for pulling it out and getting the win [in the SWAC tournament championship.]”

Currently on a 21-game win streak, the team’s success doesn’t surprise Reed. Ameshya Williams-Holliday, a former center at Mississippi State before joining the Lady Tigers in 2018, was named both SWAC Player of the Year and SWAC Defensive Player of the Year this season. The 6-foot-4 senior led the SWAC in scoring ( 19.4 per game), field goal percentage ( 58.6 ) and blocks ( 2.7 ). She was also second in the conference in rebounds per game ( 11.3 ). Rogan, who averaged 13.3 points per game and led the team in 3-pointers ( 42 ), was named second-team All-SWAC.

“It’s been an amazing feeling,” Reed said. “Every year we wanted [this program] to elevate what we bring to the table [and] elevate the success of the program. To finally do something where we can make national attention, that’s what we want to do. [The win streak] it’s telling us that we’re on our way. We just don’t want to be competitive in the SWAC. We want to be competitive outside of the SWAC and we want to represent. We want to play tough in big games and win those games.”

One of the Lady Tigers’ staunchest supporters is Jackson State head football coach Deion Sanders, aka Coach Prime, who attended several of the Lady Tigers games this season.

Sanders’ youngest daughter Shelomi, a senior guard at Rockwall-Heath High School in Rockwall, Texas, committed to Jackson State last month and will join her older brothers Shilo and Shedeur in the fall as part of the Tigers’ athletic family. After Shelomi announced on Instagram that she would be attending Jackson State, Coach Prime made a post about his excitement and trust in Reed.

“When I tell u GOD is Good, GOD is Good! My young daughter @shelomisanders has committed to play basketball for the Back 2 Back SWAC Champions @gojsutigerswbb! @coachtomekiareed I love ya, appreciate u and TRUST u with my baby girl. Teach her, challenge her, develop her to be the best she can be on and off the court.”

To help the Lady Tigers prepare for games, Coach Sanders often sent some of his football players to Reed’s practices to keep the team tough and sharp.

“Prime FaceTimed me the other day,” said Reed. “He told me, ‘Coach, don’t go backwards, you got to keep getting better. You can’t be blowing people out and be comfortable. You have to find ways to stay tough. If you’re winning it all again, you’re gonna have tough competition on the other side and you got to be ready.’ He’s right. You’re beating teams by 40 and 50 points. You wonder, are you getting better?”

Reed, who signed a four-year contract extension with JSU in 2020 after only two seasons as head coach, has taken the program to great heights in a short amount of time. However, during the early stages of her tenure, there were moments when the direction of the program wasn’t always clear.

When Reed first took over the team during the 2018-19 season and began the conference schedule 1-5, it brought unpleasant flashbacks to the 2016-17 season when the Lady Tigers went on a 10-game losing streak and finished 12-16 under then-coach Taylor. Jackson State athletic director Ashley Robinson didn’t lose faith in Reed.

“When Coach Reed started [ 1-5 ] I told them to be patient,” Robinson said. “I won’t forget the night that I gave her that call when she was 1-5 in the conference and told her, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. This is your first year, but I see what you’re doing, I see your vision.’ ”

Reed and Robinson, both from Jackson, Mississippi, have a friendship that dates back to high school. Robinson’s full support and trust was the boost Reed needed to stay the course and turn the program around. Reed and the Lady Tigers finished out the remaining 12 conference games with an 11-1 record that season and made it to the 2019 SWAC tournament final before losing a close game to Southern University 45-41.

“Everybody wanted me fired in the beginning [and] started saying I was the wrong hire in my first year. Ashley provided me with the mental support and reassurance that I needed,” Reed said. “When he told me those words, and he was right there for me, we turned the program around. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without his immediate support.”

Jackson State is now 59-4 in conference play since that skid in 2018. To right the ship, Reed went back to her coaching fundamentals, watching and deciphering as much film as possible, which she learned from five-time WNBA All-Star and current New Orleans Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon. Reed, who was an assistant for Weatherspoon when she was head coach at Louisiana Tech, used the tools she’s learned under Weatherspoon to help her team.

“[Weatherspoon] had a very short temper and zero tolerance for mediocrity, and that was for her coaches and for her players,” Reed said. “Every day I had to bring it as a coach. She was so big on skill development. So those details helped me and a lot of that is who I am today. I’m a master of details as well.”

During her first stint at Jackson State as an assistant under Taylor, Reed was JSU’s recruiting coordinator. Now as the head coach, she takes a strong approach to building relationships with local players and recruiting strong talent, making it her goal to win the state of Mississippi in recruiting.

After Williams-Holliday, a Gulfport, Mississippi, native, abruptly left then-No. 4-ranked Mississippi State two games into her sophomore season in 2017 due to personal reasons, Reed began texting her to see how she was doing. Reed first began recruiting Williams-Holliday out of high school, while she was the head coach at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi. Soon after she left MSU, they began texting on a regular basis, with Reed constantly encouraging her not to give up on basketball. Once Reed joined Jackson State as head coach in 2018, Williams-Holliday decided to follow, enrolling at the university that June.

Ameshya Williams-Holliday had 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in Jackson State’s 101-80 win over Alabama State in the SWAC tournament championship on March 12.

Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It’s been great playing under Coach Reed because she’s like a mother [and] a mentor,” said Williams-Holliday, a former three-star recruit from Gulfport. “When I left Mississippi State, I really gave up on basketball. But when she told me she wanted to help me get back in school, I just wanted to give that favor back and just play basketball for her once she got the job.”

On Reed’s current roster, 13 of the 15 players are Mississippi natives. Jackson State men’s basketball associate head coach Cason Burk, a former guard on the Tigers’ men’s team from 2008 to 2011, frequently observes Reed’s practices and says he believes her best quality is the relationships she’s cultivated with her players.

“She does two things really well: recruiting and developing relationships with her players, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I think she has a good pulse on what she has going on her team. I think what she does well is she’d know when to be hard and she knows when to pull back,” Burk said. “In terms of what she’s doing, she’s done a great job. … Every night they’re prepared to play. They compete at a high level, and on top of that she has a tremendous amount of talent on the team that she’s accumulated.”

In addition to Rogan and Williams-Holliday, Reed has a collection of former highly ranked recruits on her roster, including junior center Daphane White and redshirt junior forwards Miya Crump and Daja Woodard. The Lady Tigers’ collection of talent makes them one of the most well-balanced teams in the SWAC. With the Lady Tigers’ recent success, Reed says teams that formerly had a long-standing relationship with Jackson State no longer want to play them out of fear of a potential loss that was once a guaranteed win.

“Coaches say give me three or four years and I can turn this program around, but we did it after Year 1 and nobody talked about it,” Reed said. “I really wanted to get the top players from the area and the state. We did that. I wanted to be competitive in the conference and bring in top-tier players [from the] transfer portal. We got those players. My next goal was to be competitive outside the conference, and that’s the year that we’re in right now.”

Last year, the Lady Tigers were No. 15 but were ousted 101-52 in the first round by No. 2 Baylor, then led by head coach Kim Mulkey, a three-time national champion who is now at LSU.

“Everything that we’ve done it’s been to set the stage, [including] playing those close games early in the season. We’re expected to go take it now. … We were caught by surprise last year against Baylor [in the NCAA tournament]. We thought we were prepared, but we weren’t and Baylor jumped out on us. I told the players after that game, ‘We will be back [and] the next time we go back, it’s going to be a different outcome.’ We’re ready now.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."