HAMPTON — Alyssa Bennett and Nicole Hamilton didn't start out close, but sharing a hometown, a locker room, an academic path and a quest for excellence forged a bond that they hope leads to a place in history.
Bennett and Hamilton are the senior ringleaders of a Hampton University women's basketball team aiming for a second consecutive undefeated Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference season and an unprecedented fifth straight NCAA tournament berth.
Expect little outward sentiment when the Hampton natives play their final home game 6 p.m. Thursday as the Lady Pirates (24-4, 15-0 MEAC) face second-place North Carolina A&T at the HU Convocation Center.
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Hampton University, 100 East Queen Street, Hampton, VA 23668, USA
"They've put their stamp on Hampton University basketball," Lady Pirates coach David Six said. "They'll be hard to replace."
Hamilton and Bennett were integral parts of HU's previous three NCAA teams. As seniors and the Lady Pirates' best players, they assumed leadership roles for an underclass-heavy group.
They complement each other's games and personalities. Hamilton is a 5-foot-8 point guard who plays with her emotions on her sleeve. The 6-1 Bennett conveys little emotion, but displays her considerable athletic gifts in an all-court game.
"Fire and Ice," Six referred to the duo.
Six has watched both of them since they were kids playing youth league basketball. He coached Bennett in high school at Hampton, and coached against Hamilton at Phoebus.
Both required time and effort to acclimate to Hampton U. — Hamilton directly from Phoebus, Bennett after two aborted commitments and a stint at Gulf Coast Community College in Florida.
"To be honest, I didn't think I would play again, the way I felt coming back from Florida," Bennett said. "But I saw Coach Six and we connected. We started talking about my chances at HU, so I came here. I felt comfortable, I trusted him and it worked out."
Neither were great students in high school, or when they arrived at HU. Both will leave with degrees in recreation after making the Dean's List multiple times.
"For all they've done on the court," Six said, "the thing I'm most proud of is that they'll graduate."
Bennett is the MEAC's most complete and versatile player, though Player of the Year might go to someone with gaudier individual stats. Still, she is fifth in the MEAC in scoring (17.3 ppg), third in rebounding (9.0 rpg) and fourth in field-goal percentage (.465).
If she were a high-volume shooter, she would easily average 20-plus points per game. She averages fewer than 15 attempts per game. Sometimes Six has to remind her that most of her shots are better than nearly anyone else's.
What separates Bennett, however, is her defense. She checks everyone from point guards to power forwards, using her length and wingspan to frustrate guards, her quickness and athletic ability to neutralize forwards.
As effective as Bennett can be around the basket, HU's leader in blocked shots is its point guard. Hamilton has 65 blocks, second in the league to Bethune-Cookman's 6-foot-4 Kailyn Williams. She often blocks shots with a flourish — big, sweeping motions that drive Six crazy — that feeds into her emotional well.
"I love to hear the crowd go, 'Ooooooh,'" she said.
Hamilton might be the Lady Pirates' most competitive player.
"If you went out there right now and had a 3-point shooting contest, she could talk half the kids out of it," Six said. "Even if they were capable of beating her, she could talk half the kids out of it because she's so competitive."
Hamilton averages 13.4 points and nearly six rebounds per game. Despite playing out of position — she is a natural shooting guard — she is second in the conference in assists (5.0). Though a capable scorer and finisher, she gets more satisfaction from assists and blocked shots than points.