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Morgan State women’s basketball defying expectations in rise to top of MEAC’s Northern Division

Morgan State's Sydney Searcy dribbles the ball during a game against Navy on Dec. 18, 2020.
Morgan State's Sydney Searcy dribbles the ball during a game against Navy on Dec. 18, 2020. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Dahnye Redd did not realize the Morgan State women’s basketball team’s potential until midway through the 2019-20 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schedule. The Bears marched to a tie for second place and the No. 3 seed in the league tournament before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the rest of the postseason March 12.

Redd, a redshirt senior forward who transferred from Harford Community College, arrived at a much quicker conclusion about the current squad after practicing in the preseason.

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“I think honestly, this team is a lot better than that team,” she said. “I didn’t know how good everybody was, I didn’t know what everybody could bring to the table until we started scrimmaging more and everybody started getting looser. Everybody competes, everybody’s got different skills that they bring to the table. Even our coach brings something different to the table. … This year, I’m 100% confident that we’ve got what it takes.”

Redd’s conviction stems from Morgan State’s rise to the top of the conference’s Northern Division standings this winter. A two-game sweep of Coppin State on Saturday and Tuesday extended the team’s winning streak to five games for an 8-2 overall record and a 5-1 mark in the league, which is a half-game better than second place Howard (8-2, 4-1). The Bears and Bison begin a two-game series Saturday.

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The Bears’ development should not qualify as a complete surprise after the program was voted to finish second in the MEAC’s preseason poll in October. But associate head coach Wanika Owsley said the doubters are still numerous.

“When we beat people, people still think it’s a fluke, and we’re here to make a statement,” she said after Tuesday night’s 72-43 thumping of the Eagles. “I keep drilling in their heads that we’ve got to show people what we mean. We’ve got to show people that it’s not a game and that [last season] wasn’t a fluke. This is what we are. So hopefully, we can build off of this game tonight and this energy.”

Morgan State assistant head coach Wanika Owsley looks on during a game at Hill Field House on Jan. 2, 2021.
Morgan State assistant head coach Wanika Owsley looks on during a game at Hill Field House on Jan. 2, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Questions about Morgan State’s sustainability were understandable. Before last season, the program had finished with a winning record in the conference only three times since the 2010-11 season and never in succession. And the team had graduated a pair of starters in shooting guard Chelsea Mitchell and point guard Jihayah Chavis.

Mitchell, a Columbia resident and Atholton graduate, was named to the All-MEAC first team after leading the league in double doubles (14) and rebounds (9.7 per game) and ranking second in points (15.5 per game) and steals (3.6). She left the school ranked eighth in career steals with 184.

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Redd said many people outside the program like to point out Mitchell’s absence.

“We hear about Chelsea a lot more than you would expect,” she said. “We heard about her a lot, like what she did last year because she had a great season. But I think we just work hard so that we don’t have to hear things like that. We’re doing it without her. We’re still on without her.”

Chavis ranked third in the conference in assists (3.7) and fifth in steals (2.0). She ended her career ranked fifth in program history in assists with 296 and steals with 217.

Sophomore Ja’Niah Henson said that succeeding Chavis as the primary point guard has its ups and downs.

“I’m definitely adjusting, especially with me being a scoring PG,” Henson, a Baltimore resident and Roland Park graduate, said. “I feel like last year, Jihayah didn’t have to score as much because we had those scorers. She would give us a few points, but she was more of a facilitator. I feel like now with me being one of the top scorers, I have to score for my team or find ways to create chances and help facilitate and make sure that I hit everybody in their open spots.

“It’s definitely an adjustment, especially envisioning where people would be or where they should be. And there’s the timing. Everything has to be crisp.”

In addition to their departures, coach Edward Davis Jr. left during the second half of a game against Navy on Dec. 18 because of a medical emergency. Briefly hospitalized, Davis continues to recover at home, but there is no timetable for his return, according to a team spokesperson.

Despite the absences of Mitchell, Chavis and Davis, the current squad is playing as well or even better than last season’s team. The Bears are scoring more this winter (63.9 points per game) and have raised their efficiency at the free-throw line (74.7%) and behind the 3-point line (30.8%).

The players are quick to credit Owsley for maintaining a high bar for expectations. A former point guard at Southeast Missouri State and a former assistant at Mississippi State, Owsley might not be as animated as Davis, but she has gained the players’ trust.

“We know that we’re in good hands,” Redd said. “We know how good of a coach Coach ‘Neek’ is, and we also know that Coach Davis is doing better. We talk to him regularly. So it’s not really anything to worry about. He’s doing good, and everything is going fine, and we’re having a lot of success even though he’s still out.”

Owsley said the players have made it easy for her to run Davis’ philosophies on offense and defense while adding her own imprint such as pressing opponents and accelerating the team’s pace.

“It’s satisfying when they’re able to be coachable, when they allow us to hold them accountable and they know that it’s not personal and that it’s nothing but love,” she said. “When we’re on the floor, it’s all business. When we get off the floor, you can ask me about anything in the world, and we can laugh and joke. But when we’re on that floor, that’s where we work, and I’m glad that they’re able to be coachable and listen to what we say and translate it to the game.”

Morgan State's Ashia McCalla pulls down a defensive rebound in front of Navy's Ciera Hertelendy during a game Dec. 18, 2020.
Morgan State's Ashia McCalla pulls down a defensive rebound in front of Navy's Ciera Hertelendy during a game Dec. 18, 2020. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Redd (13.9 points per game), Henson (12.4) and junior shooting guard Ashia McCalla (10.7) fuel the offense, but five other players average four or more points, and Owsley does not hesitate to give her reserves considerable playing time. For instance, on Tuesday night, she liberally used sophomore guard Adia Brisker, senior guard Jayla Atmore, junior guard Khaliah Hines, graduate student center Nina Carpenter and graduate student guard Desiree Allen in place of the starting five of Redd, Henson, McCalla and senior shooting guards Sydney Searcy and Elaija Demeza.

“We have so much more depth,” Redd said. “It’s ridiculous how much more depth we have. We have another starting five. Last year, we had maybe seven or eight girls who could play. But we have 10 girls who can play.”

Morgan State is in a position to capture a MEAC championship that has eluded the school since the league organized a season-ending tournament for the 1977-78 season. The players are not shy about discussing that objective, and Owsley doesn’t discourage the talk.

“That’s our conversation,” she said. “That’s what we’re working toward. We’re preparing for the next game, but the goal is to prepare for the championship. in my mind, we’re trying to make history. We’re definitely preparing for games, but we’re trying to win the MEAC championship, which is something we’ve never done before. So that means that you’ve got to be more focused than you ever were before and that you need more energy than you ever brought before. That’s kind of where we’re at. We’re trying to set that tone, and that’s where the accountability comes in during practice.”

Henson said there’s a certain joy from exceeding others’ expectations.

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“I think we definitely proved the doubters wrong, especially now that we’re on a five-game winning streak,” she said. “We’re right up there with the best of the best, and I think that’s how it will remain.”

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MORGAN STATE@HOWARD

Saturday, 2 p.m.

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