NORFOLK — Coach Larry Vickers and the Norfolk State women’s basketball team accomplished a monumental feat last season.
The Spartans won their first MEAC Tournament since 2002 and made their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in more than 20 years.
During the MEAC women’s basketball media day last week, Norfolk State was picked to repeat as conference champions. Winning again this season would make the Spartans the first back-to-back champion since Hampton, now a member of the CAA, won five straight from 2010-2014.
The Spartans are confident they’ll repeat this year and are playing as if there is a target on their back.
“As much as I loved having other people think that we were the underdog and proving ourselves (last year), I love it even more having a target on their back,” junior guard Niya Fields said. “Now you understand our worth and people are wanting to take our crown, but it’s not possible. Not this year.”
Vickers said being picked by the coaches to repeat as champions is the ultimate sign of respect for the program.
“We lost two first-teamers and they said ‘Hey, you’re still No. 1,’ which is kinda crazy,” Vickers said. “I picked Howard, then I picked Coppin (State), then I might have picked Morgan (State), then I picked us. And that’s not a knock to the other teams below because I know they’re going to be tough as well, but some of them had a little bit more transition. So I picked us fourth, but they picked me first, so they want to add the pressure on.”
The first-teamers that Norfolk State will be without this season are Camille Downs and Deja Francis. Both ran out of eligibility and Vickers said Francis is currently playing professionally overseas.
Downs was a two-time All-MEAC first-team pick and two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year. She also led the Spartans in scoring last year with 11.7 points per game. Francis was a two-time All-MEAC first-team player and was No. 3 on the Spartans in scoring with 10.8 points per game.
Going into this season, Vickers said the biggest transition the team has had to deal with is the sophomore class taking on the roles left by players like Downs and Francis.
“The coaches recognize that group won us the MEAC Tournament,” Vickers said. “It wasn’t necessarily Camille or Deja, it was that sophomore class that really won our tournament. So just getting them ready for their new roles. Camille was like our mama hen, our leader … so now we lost our mama hen and Deja was our passion on the floor.”
Those sophomores that excelled in the MEAC Tournament are now juniors and four earned All-MEAC preseason nods.
Kierra Wheeler, last year’s MEAC Tournament most outstanding player, was named to the All-MEAC first team, Niya Fields was named to the second team and Makoye Diawara and Na’naijah Williams were third-team selections.
Johnson’s transfer was a hot topic in the college basketball world, and Vickers joked that it even made the ticker on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
“She’s a professional scorer, that’s what she does,” Vickers said of the former Phoebus High star. “But she’s also an amazing teammate and a really good leader. I think from a personality standpoint, my team didn’t know what they were gonna get from a McDonald’s (All-American) game type of player, but she kind of hopped right into our culture and she’s been amazing.”
The Spartans will be road-tested by the time MEAC play starts in January and Vickers joked it was hard to schedule home games this season after winning 26 games. Norfolk State will play 12 of its 14 non-conference games on the road this year, including games against high-major programs in Miami, Minnesota, Wake Forest and Auburn.
“It brings our competition level up,” Fields said. “When it comes time for when we win the MEAC again, I’m stating that now, and we move forward in the tournament, we’re not seeing these Power Fives as soon as we enter and don’t know what to expect. And then being on the road is also a wonderful attribute to the season because when it comes time for the tournament as well, it won’t be home. So we’ll still have to be on the road. So we’ll have all the preparation.”
NSU women at a glance
Last year: 26-7, 11-3 MEAC (first place)
Coach: Larry Vickers (117-80 in seven seasons)
Season opener: Monday at William & Mary, 5 p.m.
MEAC predicted order of finish, as selected by coaches: 1. Norfolk State, 2. Howard, 3. Morgan State, 4. Maryland Eastern Shore, 5. Coppin State, 6. North Carolina Central, 7. Delaware State, 8. South Carolina State
November: 6: at William & Mary, 5 p.m.; 8: at Drexel, 6 p.m.; 12: at Radford, 2 p.m.; 16: vs. Appalachian State, 11 a.m.; 19: at Hampton, 2 p.m.; 24: vs. *East Tennessee State, TBD; 26: *Miami (FL), TBD; 29: at Minnesota, 8 p.m.
December: 2: at Chicago State, 2 p.m.; 10: at Wake Forest, 16: Auburn, 2 p.m.; 18: at High Point University, 7 p.m.; 28: vs. UNC Wilmington, 4 p.m.; 31: at Longwood, 2 p.m.
January: 6: at South Carolina State, 2 p.m.; 8: at North Carolina Central, 5:30 p.m.; 20: at Howard, 2 p.m.; 22: vs. Mary Washington, 5:30 p.m; 27: vs. Coppin State, 2 p.m.; 29: vs. Morgan State, 5:30 p.m.
February: 3: vs. Delaware State, 2 p.m.; 5: at Maryland Eastern Shore, 5:30 p.m.; 17: vs. South Carolina State, 2 p.m.; 19: vs. North Carolina Central, 5:30 p.m.; 24: at Coppin State, 2 p.m.; 26: at Morgan State, 5:30 p.m.
March: 2: at Delaware State, 2 p.m.; 4: vs. Maryland Eastern Shore, 5:30 p.m.; 7: vs. Howard, 5:30 p.m.; 13-16: MEAC Tournament
*Thanksgiving Classic in Miami
Michael Sauls, firstname.lastname@example.org, (757) 803-5774