ATHENS — For the past 16 home games, the Concord University women’s basketball team has celebrated a victory at the final buzzer. This Saturday, a big challenge stands in the way of continuing the streak, the seventh longest active streak among NCAA Division II women.
The University of Charleston (12-0 prior to Wednesday’ s game) travels down the Turnpike to play the Mountain Lions at the Carter Center in Athens. The Golden Eagles, currently ranked third in NCAA Division II, were one of nine D-2 women’ s teams with undefeated records as of midweek.
Concord (6-5) counters with a solid mix of veterans and freshmen who are seeing valuable time on the court.
Kenny Osborne, the CU head coach, said that the play of his guards has “come a long ways. “I’m very happy with those five there.” That includes freshmen Jaisah Smith and Maddie Ratcliff, who average a combined 17.7 points per game off the bench. Point guards Gracie Robinson and her backup Ashton Funderburg add to the attack, complemented by Maggie Guynn, Keely Lundy and Savannah Dunford.
The Mountain Lions’ statistical leader is 6-foot-4 senior Riley Fitzwater, who is shooting 67 percent from the floor, blocking 4.91 opponents’ shots per game, and averaging 12.5 rebounds this season.
“Everybody knows Riley,” Osborne said. “She’ s got to make plays and finish plays for us. It’s not like she can hide down there.” The Golden Eagles are led by senior guard Brooklyn Pannell, who is the scoring leader in Division II, averaging 26.7 points per game. Last week, she was named co-national player of the week in D-2 by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
In the category of fewest points allowed in the Mountain East, UC holds the top spot (61.9 points allowed on average) and CU is a close second (63.2). Concord’ s average margin of victory in its home win streak is 18.6 points.
Osborne noted that Concord defeated Charleston in overtime last year in Athens. UC took a 69-56 win in this year’ s season opener in the capital city.
Seeing a team for the second time this year “makes your prep a lot easier,” Osborne said. “Our kids have pretty good memories.” Concord had been scheduled to make up a game with Glenville State at home on Monday, but that contest was canceled because Glenville has “suspended athletic activities” until Feb. 22, according to the Mountain East Conference.
The men’s game between Concord (6-5) and Charleston (10-2) also matches up two of the MEC’ s top defenses. The nationally-ranked Golden Eagles have allowed an average of 72.1 points for the No. 1 spot in the stats, while the Mountain Lions five up 74.6 points per game.
Concord claimed a 64-62 win at Charleston on Jan. 7 to launch this year’ s pandemic- shortened season.
CU head coach Todd May said that a game between the two clubs from opposite ends of the Turnpike “is always a grind-it-out affair.” Speaking earlier this week in a Zoom press conference, looking at games with West Virginia State and UC, May said about his team, “It’ s going to be a challenging week, but I know they’ re up to the challenge.” Concord entered the week with a 6-1 record in games decided by nine points or less. The Mountain Lions have pieced together varying starting lineups, due to players being unavailable.
David Mulumba has returned the starting five. On Monday, he claimed a career-best 14 rebounds and scored 15 points — all on 3-point shots — in Concord’ s 74-73 road win in Wheeling, the Athenians’ second in a row.
“Our teams always seem to peak in February,” May said. “I think this may be the start of that.” Saturday will mark the 150th men’s basketball game between the two schools. Charleston holds a 94-55 advantage in a series that began in 1922, when the schools were known as Concord State Normal School and Morris Harvey College.
Tom Bone is a freelance reporter for the Princeton Times and the Bluefield Daily Telegraph