Anita Howard established two priorities when she was hired as Columbus State women’s basketball coach. One was to meet with her predecessor, Jonathan Norton, to discuss the talent she inherited so she could determine what she might need to add through recruiting. The other was to find out the date of The Division II Women’s National Championship Game and ingrain that in the minds of everyone one the team, herself including.
March 24. Or, to make it easier to remember, 0324.
You see, it’s not just by happenstance or magical pixy dust that the Lady Cougars have made it to the Elite Eight of Division II women’s basketball. This team expects to win. Every game, against every team. They’ve done just about that so far, winning 30 while losing just once, on the road to South Carolina-Aiken.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a question of do we belong here or not,” Howard said. “That was one of our goals at the beginning of the year. We knew we wanted to compete for a national championship, and to do that we had to get past the Peach Belt, we had to get past the regional, and so now we’re exactly where we expected to be, and that’s in the Elite Eight. We always felt like we belonged.”
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When Howard speaks about the week ahead, she speaks assumptively about the entire week, not just Tuesday, when the Lady Cougars play Virginia Union in Columbus. Well, the other Columbus. Yeah, there’s also one in Ohio. The game will air live on ESPNU at noon. The semifinals will be Wednesday with the national championship game Friday.
“Three more to go. That’s what we’re focused on,” Howard said. “One at a time, but we know we have three games finish out this season. We want to be 3-0 by March 24.”
It helps that CSU is on spring break, so the players can leave their books, their study notes and their worries behind and focus on basketball.
“You’ve got to keep your mind on basketball, so that’s the task as a head coach is just make sure they keep their mind on basketball,” Howard said. “Don’t get too complacent and don’t get too stressed. I still want them to enjoy the moment but to also be focused.”
The circumstances surrounding Howard’s hiring were not typical. Usually, a coaching change occurs because the team was losing or because it was successful enough for the coach to be hired away. Neither was the case with CSU. Norton had taken over from Jay Sparks – who himself had taken the Lady Cougars to back-to-back Final Four appearances – and had built the program back up to national respectability. But Norton decided to leave coaching to become headmaster of Wynnbrook Christain School even though he had a strong team coming back.
That could have been a difficult challenge. Norton was close to his players, especially after that scary incident last season when he collapsed on the court during a game. But the players immediately bought in to Howard, which is easy to do. She has an air of comfortable confidence. She also had credibility, going 41-14 in her two seasons at Livingstone.
“When I told them of my vision for the program and moving forward, they embraced it, because it was that of a championship vision,” Howard said. “I still want to win a championship immediately. It wasn’t a five-year plan. Those seniors, they want to go out with a bang. I told them I would do everything in my power to not only keep them successful but try to take them to where they’ve never been before.”
CSU returned three strong starters in Ashley Asouzu, Britteny Tatum and Gabby Williams, as well as a solid bench. The Lady Cougars added Alexis Carter, who can be a dominant post player, and point guard Keyrra Gillespie.
But at halftime of their Southeast Regional championship game against Lincoln Memorial, when the Lady Cougars were up by five but not playing particularly well, Howard had to challenge her players to refocus.
“We can keep playing how we’re playing now and go ahead and go to the beach for spring break, or we can be playing on national TV while everybody’s watch us from their spring break,” Howard told them. “What do you want to be doing for your spring break, playing or relaxing? I told them we’ve come too far to just relax. We expected to be playing at this time in August.”
There will be plenty of time to relax next weekend.