The Bowie State women’s basketball team got off to its finest start to a season, courtesy of a 13-0 streak, and is ranked 18th among NCAA Division II programs by the latest Women’s Basketball Coaches Association poll. But senior forward Kyaja Williams has taken the accomplishments in stride.
“We worked hard in the preseason to reach this goal,” the Baltimore resident and Western graduate said Tuesday night. “We take it day by day to work hard each day. So I wouldn’t really sit here and say that it’s a dream. I would say that the work is paying off.”
The Bulldogs, who won their first 13 games before losing to league foe Johnson C. Smith on Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina, are now 3-1 in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. They are tied for first in the Division II Sports Information Directors Association poll with conference archrival Virginia Union.
Coach Shadae Swan has welcomed the growing amount of national acclaim for a program that finished the 2015-16 season at 11-17 in her first year as the interim coach. But as much as she wants the players to bask in the attention, she has cautioned them about getting caught up in the hype.
“I tell them, ‘You should enjoy it. It should be a good feeling. But you can’t be complacent because if you get complacent and you get comfortable, you won’t be in the Top 25 for long,’” said Swan, who graduated from Goucher as the school’s career leader in 3-pointers, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. “We’re going to get every team’s best. So everyone is going to come out and give us 100 percent because they want to knock off the team that’s on top. So I tell them that they have to remain humble, play within the system, don’t get big-headed, and do everything that they’re still supposed to do.”
That warning was especially relevant in the second game of the season when Bowie State found itself trailing by as much as seven points in the third quarter and then by five with 2:23 left in the final quarter at CIAA opponent Winston-Salem State on Nov. 23.
Williams scored five straight points to tie the score at 53 with 1:02 remaining before senior forward Dynaisha Christian and senior guard Amel Duggins sank layups in the final 12 seconds to cement a 57-53 outcome. But senior point guard Shawnkia McCallum acknowledged that the team was fortunate to escape with the victory.
“When they came back with their high intensity and we weren’t doing such a good job in the second half, it opened our eyes that teams are still going to try to fight back until the very end,” said McCallum, who grew up in Baltimore and graduated from St. Frances. “We got a little complacent and kind of lackadaisical at one point.”
The Bulldogs have finished each of the previous three seasons with at least 20 wins, but Swan said what makes the current group different is the presence of five seniors and one junior. Duggins has started every game, while Williams, McCallum and junior center Talanya Hutton have started 12 games.
“They’ve been on the team with the success and the failures, and they know what it’s like to win close games and lose close games and lose games we should have won,” Swan said. “I think that core group just came back more focused and more determined this year, and they’re doing an excellent job setting examples and being role models for their younger teammates.”
Williams, who was a member of the 2017-18 squad that advanced to the NCAA Atlantic Region final before losing to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said the two teams share similarities, but the current players are eager to shore up their weaknesses.
A team-wide goal for every game is to commit 10 turnovers or fewer, which has occurred only once. The players have run sprints in practice for not reaching that objective, but Williams said they have embraced the consequences.
“There’s never any complaining about it,” she said. “In order to be better, we have to look at our wrongdoings and correct them.”
Before Thursday’s game, the defense had limited opponents to 48.1 points per game, which would be a program-record low. And Bowie State’s 13.8-point scoring margin would also set a new standard. But Swan is most pleased with the team’s rate of 10.8 assists, which she said is indicative of the players’ camaraderie.
“I think each year, we learn to get less selfish on offense,” she said. “Last year, we may have made on extra pass compared to this year when we’re making two extra passes. We’re really trying to run our sets and execute and find the open players and take the good shots. Our execution is a lot better this year, our defense is a lot better. I think it just comes from that experience because these young ladies have been running the system for years now.”
Williams and McCallum have been significant contributors to Bowie State’s success. As of Thursday, Williams led the offense in points (14.3 per game), rebounds (10.5), steals (3.8) and blocks (1.4), while McCallum ranked first in assists (3.5) and seventh in points (5.8).
McCallum said the players are keeping the focus on themselves.
“I think we’re doing the same things we’ve always been doing since preseason — just working hard, going at each other in practice,” she said before Thursday’s game. “So us being 13-0 is all because we’ve just been working and just playing hard like we do. We don’t feel pressure. Of course, everybody wants to beat us, which is understandable. But as a team, we’re not pressured at all.”
The Bulldogs are aiming at capturing their first league championship since 1999 and then making a run at the NCAA title. Williams acknowledged that anything short of a national crown would be disappointing.
“We set our standards high, and we keep our goals,” she said. “We would probably feel cheated because we did one thing, but didn’t get to the other thing. At the end of the day, we need to continue to work to get both of them because both of them are our goals for the whole year.”
Sprinting out of the gate
The Bowie State women’s basketball team is off to its best start in program history. Here is how previous top squads began their seasons.
2019-20; 13-1; To be determined
1997-98; 7-0; 28-2, CIAA title, NCAA South Atlantic Region final