Schaquilla Nunn was just trying to keep her head above water last year in her first season of college basketball.
She was one of six new recruits. Head coach Kevin Cook was also in his first season at Winthrop. Despite fielding one of the youngest rosters in the Big South, Cook’s 2012-13 team went 21-12 and captured the program’s first-ever win in the WNIT, a 14-point victory at Florida Gulf Coast.
With a strong returning core of scorers, a more mature Nunn sees no reason why Winthrop can’t reach this season’s goal: a Big South Conference championship ring.
“Last year was a completely new team,” Nunn said. “I didn’t know what to expect, and now I have a much better feel for it. We all got to know each other better over this summer and we know we have players who want (a ring) so badly. We want to give it to them.”
Winthrop retains 63 percent of its offensive firepower from last year’s record-breaking season. They’ll be led from the front by senior guard Dequesha McClanahan (19.8 points per game, 5.8 assists per game in 2012-13), a four-year starter who’s nine points away from breaking the program record for career points scored (1,699, Kim Segars, 1985-89). McClanahan was the only player to start each of Winthrop’s 33 games last year, leading the team in scoring, assists, three-point percentage (.339) and free throws made (135).
“Obviously, Dequesha is the straw that stirs our drink,” Cook said of his two-time Big South Player of the Year. “But if I’m sitting here with two of her trophies in my office, she won’t care about all that stuff. The one thing I’ve heard her talk about is getting a ring. That brings a smile to her face.”
Coaches and local media picked the Eagles to finish second in this year’s Big South preseason poll, the team’s highest ranking since 2008.
Surrounding McClanahan are sophomores Nunn, who averaged 10.1 rebounds per game last season, and Samiya Wright, a scrappy 5’8” guard who set school records for most minutes played and most 3-pointers made in a single season. Freshman Erica Williams, a 5’10” guard out of Rex, Ga., is expected to fill the hole left by graduate Diana Choibekova. Williams led her high school, Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, to the state championship game this spring while averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds in her senior year.
Expectations are high, but McClanahan says she’s not putting any undue pressure to perform on herself.
“I feel like when you have pressure, you rush and make mistakes,” she said, minutes before team practice. “I’m just gonna carry out every play like it’s my last. Right now, the whole team just wants to go out there and play a team worth beating.”
Winthrop opens its 2013-14 season Sunday against the College of Charleston Cougars (16-16, 11-9 in Southern Conference last year). Winthrop is 2-25 against the College of Charleston, but the Eagles hold recent bragging rights, having beaten the Cougars 63-61 in Charleston last year.
“This opener is a test, Cook said. “They’ve got outstanding long-range shooters. We could have scheduled someone we thought we could beat easily, but this is what you work for since July. You’re only promised 29 tests, so why not be challenged every time out?”