Winthrop women’s basketball is 2-25 this season.
The Eagles have won just six games in the last two campaigns combined and former coach Kevin Cook was suspended in January before ultimately agreeing to a mutual separation with the university in late February. Multiple players have transferred away from the program in the last two years and it’s not been easy for those left behind, including one of the school’s best-ever players, Erica Williams.
But when Williams, a senior who will play her final game for the Eagles on Saturday, is working with the women and children that find refuge at Pilgrims’ Inn in Rock Hill, her basketball problems are put in embossed contrast.
“At the end of the day I just realized I’m playing a game I love,” Williams said. “Just to go out there and play every game is amazing and is a fun thing to do. So I’m just looking at the fun part of it and not the record.”
Williams leads the Big South Conference in scoring despite her team’s struggles. Win or lose Saturday, she’ll go down as one of the best players in the program’s history, a “tweener” that was too quick and skilled for post players to defend but too strong and aggressive for guards to handle. Williams will finish her career as the school’s second all-time leading scorer (1,731 points) and the only player in school history with more than 1,700 points, 800 rebounds and 300 assists.
She and the only other senior that hasn’t left Winthrop in the last few years, guard CiiCii Buford, have been strong shoulders for the numerous younger players to lean on during a trying season.
“She’s done an excellent job for this program. Every game she’s come out and given her all, evidenced in the statistical categories,” said Winthrop interim coach and basketball hall of famer Lynette Woodard.
Most of the other players Cook recruited in Williams’ class are gone. Aliyah Kilpatrick left after last season to play a graduate transfer season at North Carolina A&T, while Schaquilla Nunn seized the chance to play a grad year at Tennessee. But Williams never truly considered leaving.
“I liked Coach Cook as a coach and a person,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s not about politics and who knows who, or what is what. I’m just here to play basketball and lace up my shoes every day. I just stayed around because I really like Coach Cook.”
Williams also didn’t want to leave Winthrop where she’s comfortable and engrossed in her major, social work. That course of study led her to an internship at Pilgrims’ Inn, which has opened her eyes in numerous ways.
“Working at Pilgrims’ has given me a different outlook on how homeless people are,” she said. “They’re just like regular people, dressed the same way as me or you. They just fell on hard times so it really opened my eyes to see a different light of homeless people.”
“You certainly have to be compassionate,” Woodard said about Williams’ internship. “All you have to do is go to school and get an education, play basketball, play a little defense and a little offense, so life is pretty good. I know she has a big heart. It’s just a credit to her character.”
Williams is an excellent student and social work will probably be a central part of her future. But she wants to give pro basketball a chance first and she’s already been invited to several pro combines. Woodard, who played quite a bit of pro basketball herself, including a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, plans to help Williams in any way possible.
“She works so hard, I think she’ll have a shot. If not in the WNBA, certainly overseas,” said Woodard. “There has been a lot of interest in her in terms of inviting her to combines. “As soon as we get through I’ll sit down with her and show her all the people that are interested in her and show her the things that are expected of her.”
Williams’ final game is Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Coliseum. Her name will be announced before the game and she’ll walk out on the court with her family as memories of winning an NIT game and playing Duke in the NCAA tournament intermingle with all the losses and a season lost to a broken foot.
“I already told my mom, ‘I’m gonna cry so prepare for it’,” Williams said. “It’s gonna be emotional because I spent my last four years of life here, grew real close with people, the coaches, so it’s gonna be a really tough thing to handle. But we have a game so I’m just gonna have fun and try my hardest.”