Centre women a team on the rebound

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Abigail Stewart
Abigal is second on the team in scoring for Centre, while leading in rebounds and blocked shots.
Centre athletics photo

By Brian Lester

Fifteen wins. That’s all Centre managed to pick up over the past two seasons.

The lack of success was tough to digest for a program accustomed to winning, a program with 12 conference championships and seven NCAA Tournament appearances to its name.

Head coach Wendie Austin-Robinson, who has won 176 games in her tenure, took the back-to-back losing seasons personally.

“The first person I pointed the finger to was at myself,” Austin-Robinson said. “We’ve been down the last three years and I really appreciate the girls buying in to getting better and getting the program to where it used to be.”

But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

The Colonels have won nine of their last 11 and own a 12-3 record. They are 3-2 in the SAA, good enough for second place.

Junior forward Abigail Stewart recalls the first two difficult years of her college career. She admits they weren’t easy to deal with but she is a better player for having gone through it.

“It’s definitely not something that is easy to overcome, but it makes you a stronger player,” Stewart said. “Adversity is something every player should go through because it shows how good you are as a player and how good your team is. It’s about overcoming those struggles and continuing to fight.”

Motivated by the struggles and a desire to rise up again, the players put in a lot of work in the offseason.

“Our girls recommitted themselves, Austin-Robinson said. “They recommitted to the offseason and working to get better and get back to creating the culture and tradition we are used to having here. It’s been refreshing. We have a great group of young women who want to be successful.”

And the feeling of winning is something a player wouldn’t trade for anything.

“It’s been really exciting. I like winning. It’s a lot more fun than losing,” Stewart said with a laugh. “It’s a lot of fun playing with this team. We’ve really clicked. I think it helps that we are like a family.”

Averaging 10.2 points, Stewart has played a crucial role in the turnaround, and the connection she talks about is never more evident than in the way she interacts on the floor with senior point guard Paige Kellam, who is averaging 8.4 points per game and has dished out 45 assists.

“Paige reads the floor so well,” Stewart said. “When I’m running down the court with her, I know she is going to stop and shoot or I’m there to dump it down to if needed. We have almost a telepathic thing going on. We just work really well together.”

Stewart’s experience is valuable as she has started all but six games during her career. And while her ability to score can’t be overlooked, it’s what the Kentucky native does on the defensive end of the floor that makes the biggest difference. She has 93 blocks in her career, including 24 this season.

“Coach calls me the rim protector,” Stewart said. “It’s something I’ve always had the ability to do it. I have a lot fun blocking shots.”

Stewart helps set the tone for a defense that allows just 53.3 points per outing.

“We let our defense drive our offense,” Austin-Robinson said. “Last year we weren’t very talented offensively, but we could guard well and that carried over to this year. The players understand defense wins games.”

Other than Stewart, Kat Wilson is the only other player averaging at least 10 points per game. Wilson owns an 11.2 scoring average. Four others are averaging between five and eight points per outing.

“That is what is awesome about this team. We don’t have just one person you can key in on,” Austin-Robinson said. “Everyone has bought into their roles and they believe in that next man up mentality. It makes us hard to game plan for.”

Six years ago, Centre played in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16. Austin-Robinson knew going into the year this team had a chance to be special. There is still a lot of basketball to be played but the belief is that this team can contend for a league crown and NCAA tourney berth.

“Centre is dear to my heart. I love this place and I love seeing us bring respect back to the program,” Austin-Robinson said. “We have a long way to go. We’re upset about those two losses last weekend and in the end we hope it’s the best thing for us, that it’s motivation to get back and work even harder.”

Stewart believes the Colonels will bounce back and looks forward to seeing just how far this team can go. The potential seems limitless.

“It would be really exciting to win the conference and go to the NCAA Tournament,” Stewart said. “That’s our goal and it’s exciting to think about. We just have to keep working hard and understand how important it is to be prepared for each game.”

Regional notes

Sul Ross State stretched its win streak to 10 Saturday with an 84-65 win over Howard Payne. Caleb Thomasson led the Lobos with 15 points. Thomasson is putting up 20.6 points per outing for a Lobos team that has turned things around after a 2-4 start.

McMurry grabbed a share of the ASC West Division lead with a 68-63 win over Mary Hardin-Baylor Saturday. Monica Jones scored 19 points, including 17 in the first half, as the Lobos won for the third time in four games.

Texas-Dallas extended its win streak to seven in a 76-48 victory over LeTourneau Saturday. Victoria Pena poured in 23 points and Kelly Skinner finished with a season-best 20. Both players connected three times from the outside. The Comets tied a season high with nine 3-pointers as a team.

Randolph-Macon’s Kelly Williams has been sensational. In two wins last week, Williams pushed her double-double total to 13, the most in the league. She scored 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a 63-46 win over Virginia Wesleyan and finished with 20 points and 13 boards in an 82-51 win over Hollins. The sophomore has scored in double figures in every game this season.

Oglethorpe maintained sole possession of first place in the SAA with a 76-69 win over Centre Sunday. The Stormy Petrels have won four in a row and seven of their last eight. Will Perry lit up the scoreboard for 21 points. He’s shooting 50.6 percent from the field and averaging 20.1 points per game.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 15 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3football.com and wrote the book Perfect Run as No. 1 about the 2009 Division II men's basketball champions University of Findlay. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.