Take any of the usual terms attributed to tournament play, such as “new season” or “clean slate,” and Alico Dunk has used them again and again as coach of Elizabeth City State’s women’s basketball team.
But it’s his reflection on last year’s 13-14 mark that gives him great perspective on this season’s success in preparation for the CIAA Tournament.
The Lady Vikings now enter the field as one of the favorites with a 13-game winning streak, an unbeaten Northern Division title, and a 23-3 overall record (15-1 CIAA) along for a possible ride to their first-ever CIAA tourney title.
“What we endured last year has placed us in this position,” said Dunk, as his team will open play with St. Augustine’s, the No. 4 seed out of the Southern Division, today in Charlotte. “All of the returning players have buckled down, they knew what we went through, they didn’t want to experience it again.
“Some of the things were out of our control, and this year, we wanted to control all the factors we could control, and thus far we’ve done a good job of it.”
Part of what went out of control was injuries, which shortened seasons for starters such as Shatara Jackson and De’Rya Wylie, and disciplinary reasons that kept DaShera Boone off the court last season.
All have returned to key one of the program’s best stretches ever, along with a core group of experience in forward Stephanie Harper and Pasquotank alum Jasmine Whitehurst, and senior transfers like Shawnte Taylor.
Just 13 months ago, Wylie had to sit out because of blood clots, and it only hurt more to see her teammates fight but not have enough firepower to close out many games.
“For me, getting sick then and being able to come back this year, and for us to be able to bounce back the way we have, I’m glad to be back,” Wylie said. “All that matters is that we’ve stuck together through the tough times.”
One of those who stuck through last year was Harper, who has been a leader for the last two seasons.
She’s used those trying times as motivation and humility, knowing there’s still work to do.
“Last year was a test of our character to see if we could bounce back, and they say good teams and players bounce back, so we’ve got to use that and get better,” Harper said.
Southern Division champ Fayetteville State, the Lady Vikings’ lone league loss, and second-place Shaw are both considered front runners to take this year’s crown.
But ECSU beat Shaw, the defending Division II national champ, at the R.L. Vaughan Center last month and led midway through the second half before losing a tight 75-70 result to Fayetteville State.
Both clubs (Shaw No. 16 and Fayetteville No. 22) are ranked in the most recent USA Today Division II Coaches Poll while the Lady Vikings only registered consideration for the poll this week, getting two votes.
Wylie is fine with ECSU being downplayed as a possible sleeper team, and knows it would be a great feeling to bring a title to Elizabeth City, which would also hand the team an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We have to go in there with a mindset that we have to beat everybody and be ready to play,” Wylie said. “It’s just like we got underanked at the beginning at the preseason, we were ranked fourth. So it gives us a reason to play harder.
“With six of us being seniors, it would great for us, the program, the school, all of us. It would be an amazing experience, and that’s what we’re hoping for.”
And it’s a hope that’s sprung together through a team affected little by injuries, and full of battle-tested experience.
“All of the adversity we faced has made us a much stronger team, including the new players,” Dunk said. “It’s pretty big for this program. When I took over, I wanted to build something special and establish a program and we’ve done a good job of it so far.”