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HBCU Basketball

Virginia Union Lady Panthers back in the national spotlight

Several top players make team real threat to win NCAA Division II basketball title

While a lot of black college basketball teams are struggling, the Lady Panthers of Virginia Union University are thriving again.

In head coach AnnMarie Gilbert’s first season last year, VUU posted a 28-3 overall record and won Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and Atlantic Region tournament titles before bowing out in the NCAA Division II national quarterfinals. Senior point guard Kiana Johnson, a three-year starter at Michigan State before coming to the Richmond, Virginia, school, led the nation in scoring at 29.3 points a game and was among the national leaders in assists and steals en route to earning the Division II player of the year award.

Ex-Virginia Union star Kiana Johnson now lighting it up in Finland

A year later, with an expanded cast of contributors, Gilbert and the Lady Panthers are right back in the national spotlight. They were off to a 17-0 start, 8-0 in CIAA play, before losing two weeks ago to Chowan University. But they are now 20-1 and currently ranked No. 6 in the NCAA DII Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) poll.

“We have a lot more talent this year,” said Gilbert after her squad dispatched rival Virginia State, 77-64, in mid-January. “Last year, we had the No. 1 player in the nation [Johnson], the CIAA’s top defender in Lady Walker and a couple of shooters, but we didn’t have depth at positions 2 through 4. We’re not as strong at the point this year, but we’ve got kids who can be steady. That’s all we need.”

Teams knew last year that to beat VUU they had to stop or slow down Johnson, who handled the ball on every possession. In the team’s 53-52 season-ending loss to Bentley University in the national quarterfinals, Johnson was held to just 26 points, making just eight of 26 shots from the field, three of 15 in the second half. She had exploded for 49 points in the regional final.

“It’s a little bit easier coaching this team,” Gilbert said. “They’re not thought of as a one-man show. Kiana Johnson [now playing professionally in Finland] was a great player and made everybody around her better. Now, our depth is such that we can make plays all over the floor. You can’t just key in on one person.”

Walker, a 6-foot-2 senior, returned at center and has continued as a double-double machine, scoring 15.1 points a game and pulling down a CIAA-best 12.0 rebounds a game. She also leads the league at 1.9 blocked shots a game. Jayda Luckie, a 5-foot-9 junior off-guard who joined last year’s team at midseason, is putting in 14.2 points a game and shooting a robust 54.5 percent from the field.

“Lady Walker is still playing good basketball,” Gilbert said of her center, a 2016 all-CIAA selectee who has had 14 double-doubles in 21 games. “Luckie can score in bunches. I think she’s the most improved player on the team.”

A quartet of transfer newcomers, however, has been the biggest difference. They highlight the greatest improvement in the team.

Point guard Rejoice Spivey, a 5-foot-8 transfer from North Carolina A&T, has taken over the point guard duties and tops the CIAA by handing out 4.4 assists a game. “She didn’t play a ton at A&T, but coming down to this level she has a chance to figure it all out, see the game and make plays,” said Gilbert.

A pair of juniors on the wings, 5-foot-9 Brittany Jackson and 6-foot junior Alexis Johnson, provide the infusion of talent and scoring. Both come to VUU via ASA Junior College in Brooklyn, New York.

Johnson finished as the all-time leading scorer, for both boys or girls, at Hamilton (New Jersey) West High School. She averaged 23 points a game over her final two seasons. She played just one year at ASA before signing a letter of intent to play at Towson University in 2015. The deal was never finalized. When Gilbert found out, she jumped at the chance to bring her in.

“She’s really a young, raw, talented kind of kid with so much of an upside,” Gilbert said of Johnson, a criminal justice major who is stuffing the stat sheet with 11.4 points and 7.5 rebounds a game and is just behind Walker at 1.4 blocks a game. “She was a steal. She can touch the rim and she’s the kind of kid that spends a lot of time in the gym. She’s a good student and wants to be a pro. The sky’s the limit for her.”

Johnson said she models her game after NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant and WNBA star Candace Parker. But her smooth playing style is more like a version of George “The Iceman” Gervin.

Jackson, a high-scoring guard from Sebastian, Florida, averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds a game while leading her high school Sebastian River to a Florida 7A state title as a senior. She signed with Georgia Tech and averaged 10.2 points a game while earning all-Atlantic Coast Conference freshman team honors. She was transferring to play for Vivian Stringer at Rutgers before that fell through. Instead, she went to ASA and again put up big numbers, averaging just under 22 points a game and earning junior college all-American status.

She was headed to play at Ole Miss in 2015 but ended up sitting out the season before landing this year at VUU.

Jackson is a big-time talent and prolific scorer who, despite missing four games for disciplinary reasons and currently playing as a reserve, is leading the CIAA in scoring at 17.5 points a game and is second in 3-point shooting (37.9 percent). In one of her most recent outings, a 77-70 win over Bowie State on Jan. 18, she scored 30 points in 25 minutes off the bench.

“She can shoot the 3, shoot the pull-up, she can get to the rack with ease and she can pass,” said Gilbert. “She can play the 1, the 2 or the 3. We’re putting in some new sets for her. She’s just so explosive.”

Jackson said VUU is a better fit for her.

“It’s a smaller environment, it’s a little different,” Jackson said. “It’s OK. Basketballwise, it’s not much different.

“To be honest, it feels great to be back with my family, my team after handling that team matter,” she said. “I’m impressed with the talent level here. Our goal is to stay undefeated and win the national championship.”

Gilbert found another piece of the puzzle – 6-foot junior Fresno State transfer Rachael Pecota – playing in a Richmond rec league. Pecota is averaging 5.9 points and shooting 36.7 percent from 3-point range as a key reserve.

“I really appreciate them,” Walker said of her teammates. “The difference this year is there are a lot of different threats. If they try to shut down one person, somebody else is going to step up.”

The Virginia Union team, which won an NCAA Division II national title in 1983 under head coach Lou Hearn, believes they can do it again in 2017.

“We know the way,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got to win the CIAA tournament and we’ve got to win the Atlantic Region’s three games. Then you’ve got to get to Ohio [site of this year’s Elite Eight at Ohio Dominican University] and win.

“Lady’s [Walker] from Ohio. I’m from Ohio and we’ve got several players on the team from Ohio,” said Gilbert. “So we feel we’re taking this show on the road to our home state. We’re very excited.”

“We’ve got a lot of pieces,” said Johnson. “We have the potential to go far. I think we’ve got what it takes to win it all.”

Carl ‘Lut' Williams is the publisher and editor of the Black College Sports Page.