Winthrop Eagles' McClanahan hunting rings, not trophies

Herald correspondentFebruary 7, 2014 

  • McClanahan’s records (as of Feb. 7):

    Dequesha McClanahan is the first player in Big South women’s basketball history to pile up at least 2,000 points, 500 assists, 500 rebounds and 200 steals. The Tennessee native is also closing in on the all-time Big South women’s basketball scoring record of 2,154 points. McClanahan needs just 69 points to break the mark, held by Liberty University’s Elena Kisseleva (1996-00), and add it to the collection of school and league records she’s already established during her four years in Rock Hill.

    Season records

    Points scored: 653 in 2011-12

    Most field goals attempted: 646 in 2011-12

    Tied for first in free throws attempted: 205, with Nancy Archer (1983-84). McClanahan’s was in 2011-12

    Assists: 224 in 2011-12

    Games played: 33 in 2012-13

    Games started: 33 in 2012-13

    Minutes played: 1196 in 2012-13

    Career records

    Points scored: 2,085 (all-time leading scorer in men’s and women’s basketball at Winthrop)

    Most field goals attempted in career: 2,033

    Free throws attempted in career: 591

    Free throws made in career: 479

    Free throw percentage in career: .762

    Assists : 690 (Also Big South women’s basketball record)

    Games started: 117

    Minutes played: 4,173

    Awards

    Big South Player of the Year (2012, 2013)

    Big South Freshman of the Year (2011)

    Most Big South Player of the Week honors (4)

    Most Big South Freshman of the Week honors (6)

A two-foot tall trophy sits prominently on the side table in Winthrop head women’s basketball coach Kevin Cook’s office. Inscribed in gold lettering are the words “Big South Player of the Year 2013.”

It’s been sitting there for over six months because Cook couldn’t convince its rightful owner, Winthrop senior guard Dequesha McClanahan, to take it with her.

“Actually, I forgot that it was even in there,” said McClanahan, before a January practice. “It’s one of the trophies that I’m proud to have gotten, but I want something that honors the team.”

The focus this spring is on a championship ring, just about the only honor that the Oak Ridge, Tenn., native hasn’t yet earned in her illustrious four-year career in Rock Hill. As McClanahan nears ever closer to becoming the Big South record holder for the most points scored in a career, she and her teammates are well aware they have the best chance in the past four years to bring home the program’s first conference championship.

That’s the only trophy the senior guard wants.

And everyone’s name will be on it.

Growing pains

After the first couple months of McClanahan’s freshman year at Oak Ridge High School, her mother June wanted to talk with head basketball coach Jill Prudden.

McClanahan and her sister Desjanae, a senior, were both starters with the Wildcats for the first few games before the younger McClanahan was benched to make way for upperclassmen.

“I told her,” said June, “‘I can’t help if she’s an athlete, but she can’t be penalized. She’s clearly better than the replacements. I think it put a bad taste in her mouth for a little bit.”

McClanahan had been playing since she was eight, which can be linked directly to her upbringing. June raised five of her daughters and three sons through the Oak Ridge basketball program in the past decade and a half.

Seven McClanahans played all four years in Wildcat colors. Last spring, the school board held a special meeting to honor June for her commitment and services to the area.

“Everybody knew about the McClanahans in Oak Ridge,” June said. “They were just waiting for the next McClanahan to get to high school. I’ve lived in Oak Ridge since I was born and I don’t remember them honoring a family like that. It was like a household name.”

After spending a few formative seasons behind fellow point guard Kortni Jones (who graduated to play at Middle Tennessee State), McClanahan was given her chance to shine just before her senior year.

“Fab five”

While McClanahan was preparing to play in the Myrtle Beach Hoops and Dreams high school tournament in the summer of 2009, coach Bud Childers was hatching a plan to help turn around his struggling Winthrop (14-17) team.

In the previous two years, Childers estimated the Eagles had graduated seven seniors and over 1,000 career points. The coaching staff needed to bring in a strong freshman class in the final year of Childers’ contract in Rock Hill.

“You win with how good your guards are,” Childers said during an interview last month. “So we went after some really good players. Samiya (Wright, from Ill.) was probably one of the most decorated guards coming in, Dequesha was the most talented and Tiffany (Charles, from Fla.) was the best athlete. They could all complement each other really well.”

Childers went to Myrtle Beach to watch McLanahan play. “In the 12 minutes she played, I think she scored 14 points. She was fantastic, on a very stacked team.”

“They put her in, and it was like ‘bam, bam, bam,’ shots going in everywhere,” June said. “That’s when they started calling and recruiting. They didn’t hide the fact they were bad last year, but they wanted something to build on with them.”

“The dream was that basically, we could change the whole program around,” Charles said.

Combined with two other commitments from center Kristine Rishel and guard Dee Gray, Winthrop looked poised to make waves in the Big South. When McClanahan came to school in the summer of 2010, she said they called themselves the “Fab Five,” much like the well-documented 1991 men’s recruiting class at the University of Michigan.

One week threatened to rip that dream to pieces.

Rishel tore her ACL just twenty minutes into her first practice. Just days afterwards, Wright went down in an intra-squad scrimmage with ACL problems.

“They knew they were the future of this program… but suddenly, that team was really strapped,” Childers said. “But the good thing was that it gave Dequesha a chance.”

“A special player”

After signing her Winthrop commitment papers, McClanahan told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that the coaching staff said playing time “was open to anyone who wanted to play.”

After the preseason injury bug, there was no choice but to start the freshman, who quickly proved her worth as a brave jump shooter and led the team, scoring over 12 points a game that season.

Childers’ club (13-18) lost six of its last seven conference games, including a 15-point defeat to Gardner-Webb in the conference tournament. Childers left the school that summer.

“There was a moment when I was unsure of what I wanted to do,” Charles said, regarding Childers’ departure. “But ... no (players were) leaving, so I wasn’t going to leave.”

Their patience was soon rewarded next year under rookie head coach Marlene Stollings. Bringing in a “run-and-gun” offense predicated on getting as many touches on the ball as possible, the Eagles posted 18 wins and just the program’s second winning season in 26 years of Division I play. In her sophomore year, McClanahan broke the school record for assists (224) and points scored in a season (653), en route to Big South Player of the Year honors, and a third place finish in the conference for the team.

“She’s a facilitator of everything Winthrop does,” said second-year UNC-Asheville coach Brenda Mock-Kilpatrick. “She does the best job of getting them the basketball and making those around her better.”

When Stollings left the following summer to coach Virginia Commonwealth University, Cook, her assistant, stepped up to the head spot. Cook was McClanahan’s third coach in three years.

“I come in and she’s already the Big South Player of the Year, so I’ve seen her respond in pressure situations,” Cook said. “She’s just a special player and she puts herself into that stratosphere because of her hard work. ‘Dequeshas’ are few and far between. Her best is yet to come.”

“Sense of urgency”

Wright, McClanahan’s roommate at Winthrop, says she rarely hears her talk about life after college. She’s an exercise science major and “is keeping her options open,” but her steely-eyed gaze is more focused on a date in March – the first round of the Big South tournament.

“Everybody has one dream, one goal on this team,” Wright said. “It’s evident in everybody that we want to win, so everyone goes out on top.”

Despite a 13-6 record (7-3 Big South) this year, McClanahan and the upperclassmen are refusing to get too high on themselves; they know how quickly a loss can unravel an otherwise successful season. Last year’s shock defeat to seventh-seeded Longwood in the conference tournament in Myrtle Beach soured a season in which Cook’s team won a program-record 21 games, including 14 in league play.

“Because we didn’t have a lot of success, I wanted this university to be a Cinderella story because of us,” McClanahan said. “We don’t boast or brag about ourselves, but we can beat just about any team if we compete at our level.”

This might be Winthrop’s most complete team. McClanahan and Wright provide scoring from the backcourt, freshman forward Erica Williams has made a seamless transition to the college game, and 6-foot-4 center Schaquilla Nunn and forward Taylor Calvert provide rebounding and interior scoring. This is the team to win a ring.

“There’s definitely a sense of urgency, from the freshmen up,” Calvert said. “I think the reason being is that we all know our roles. When I come into games, it’s to hunker down on defense. Dequesha’s going to do her thing and score. Schaquilla provides a post presence. That’s why we’re destined, because we have that understanding.”

McClanahan is the orchestrator of it all, and has been for the last three years during which she’s earned a number of admirers around the conference.

“She’s one of the top three [point guards] to ever play in the Big South,” said Gardner-Webb coach Rick Reeves. “If you see her as an all-around player, she’s top five in the conference.”

High Point coach DeUnna Hendrix says she just focuses her gameplan on trying to stop Winthrop’s other players.

“She’s just on a different level and she’s made Winthrop nationally known,” said Hendrix. “I don’t think there’s anything stopping her.”

McClanahan has a chance to finish her Winthrop career with three straight conference Player of the Year trophies if she continues to keep her team in the hunt this season. She’s also been nominated for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which honors the top point guard in women’s NCAA Division I college basketball. At the end of this season, she’ll be barraged with questions of whether she wants to pursue a career in professional basketball, either in the WNBA or in Europe.

But what about the ring?

“When I get that ring, maybe I’ll bring my trophy back from coach’s,” said McClanahan.

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