We are the Champions!



IT WASN’T SO LONG AGO that regional women’s basketball powerhouses like Greensboro College — which had been to four NCAA Division III tournaments in recent years — had JWU Charlotte on speed dial when looking for an opponent to soften their schedule. JWU’s program, after all, was only founded in 2014–15 and figured to be easy work for teams like the Greensboro Pride. Sure enough, the Wildcats fell to Greensboro by a combined 51 points in their first two seasons, still attempting to find their way in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association landscape. That all began to change when Jennifer King — Greensboro’s assistant coach — was hired as JWU-Charlotte’s head coach prior to the 2016– 17 campaign.

The Pride slipped past the Wildcats by just seven points that season and didn’t play against JWU Charlotte in 2017–18. Turns out there was a good reason. One of King’s principal aims upon taking over her own team was realized, a message she shared in one of her first meetings with her new players. “I wanted to let them know that Johnson & Wales wasn’t going to be one of those schools people wanted to play anymore,” recalls King, who recently left JWU to become an offensive assistant for the Arizona Hotshots in the new Alliance of American Football league. The foundation for future success had been built.

The Wildcats had yet to taste defeat since four days before Christmas 2017, a magical run that included a bit of history far earlier than most could have expected. JWU’s 75–64 victory over Central Maine Community College last March resulted in a first national championship for the program and the school’s athletic department. Forget not wanting to play against the Wildcats — the search was on for the next team who could beat them.

The JWU Charlotte athletic community — players, coaches, department personnel — warmed to the new attitude, and the winning, pretty quickly. The culture changed. It was midway through last season when it was apparent the team could be special. The Wildcats squared off with Pfeiffer University on December 14, and the Falcons were on their way to a strong 20–5 season in the NCAA Division III ranks. JWU took the lead with 8:33 to play and held it down the stretch to post a gritty 65–61 win. That was the moment when JWU realized something special might be happening.

There were more nights like those to come, with the Wildcats riding an 11-game winning streak into the postseason. JWU allowed a total of 87 points in its first two games at the USCAA Basketball National Championships before running into a Mustangs’ team that raced into the finals with a 30–1 record.

Our mantra is ‘excellence at every level’...
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Charlotte Campus Athletics Director Trudi Lacey

The Wildcats made a statement early, setting a quick pace and dictating the action.

Johnson & Wales enjoyed a 19-point lead that was eventually cut to 62–61 late in the fourth quarter. JWU scored the next six points and finished on a 13–3 run, pulling away like it had so many times already while racking up a 22–4 record. Freshman guard Chase Muhammad led all scorers with 24 points, sophomore forward Ineesha Hankerson cemented tournament Most Valuable Player honors with 16 points and seven rebounds, and senior forward Jaquana Pauling finished with 10 points and 14 boards in the last game of her career.

Despite those calls from local powers early in the program’s history, JWU’s program was hardly bereft of talent even then. King was able to bring in supplemental talent and help change the mindset to a winning culture. Just steps off JWU’s downtown campus, Greater Charlotte is a rich recruiting area. Six players on the title team were North Carolina natives, including Charlotte products Muhammad and Hankerson. Muhammad is the daughter of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and Hankerson was a key player on a conference championship team at Hopewell High School.

In addition, JWU has excellent facilities for a school its size, among the best in the region. Combine that with the opportunity to play in big games and national championships, and the stage is set for a really attractive product for potential recruits. With JWU offering a strong academic environment with a range of academic majors as well, the university is well positioned to draw top talent. Once the winning starts, it becomes contagious.

The vision for success is shared throughout the entire athletic department. Athletic Director Trudi Lacey presides over a group of student-athletes who exceeded a 3.0 grade point average for the first time in the 2017–18 academic year. Marrying classroom success with achievements like those on the court has Lacey believing the Wildcats will continue to progress in all areas.

“Our mantra is ‘excellence at every level,’” Lacey says. “We consistently strive for excellence in everything that we do. We believe in the total development of all of our student-athletes — athletically, academically, personal development — and the winning of a national championship by the women’s basketball team is just the culmination of the work that we do every day.”

Each of Lacey’s five programs has made at least one postseason appearance, positive publicity JWU will use to make further inroads in the Charlotte area. The downtown campus offers ready opportunities to reach local businesses for both potential job placements and corporate partnerships. The Wildcats won’t be shy about introducing themselves to new faces as champions hungry for more.

“We’re very active in the community,” Lacey adds. “We just want to be consistent in letting everybody know our athletes are very hard-working. We think they’re deserving of the positive attention they’ve been getting thus far.”

While King deserves a great deal of the credit for the women’s basketball program’s rapid evolution from perceived walk-over to national champion, the ethos of excellence has found a firm foothold on the Charlotte Campus.

The phone doesn’t ring much these days in the JWU’s women’s basketball offices with potential opponents on the line. Now it’s JWU making the calls, in a new but increasingly familiar role of seeking out opponents to face off against a power program.

Any takers?

This story originally appeared in JWU Magazine Winter 2019

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