Columbus State has been amongst Division II’s elite women’s basketball programs for several years now. For the past three seasons, they have ended up in the NCAA tournament, racking up 77 wins over that span. Winning has become commonplace in Columbus.
It is more of the same this season – but it just has a brand new look.
Jonathan Norton spent seven years at the helms of the CSU Cougars. He turned them into a South Region power, appearing in three straight Peach Belt Conference tournament finals, winning two. This offseason, he decided to step away from college coaching to spend more time with his family and faith.
Enter Anita Howard. Howard is considered one of the up-and-coming young coaches in college basketball, highly regarded amongst her peers. Her resume includes turning around two programs, most recently DII’s Livingstone College.
Livingstone amassed a 27-55 record in the three years prior to Howard’s arrival. They were 41-14 in the two years under her tutelage.
For the first time in her young career, she was able to walk into a situation stacked with veteran leadership and the know-how to win basketball games.
“It was a different kind of challenge,” Howard said of her transition. “Typically you go into a program and you start from scratch.
“Luckily the chemistry was there off the bat. I met most of [the players] during the interview process, so I like to think they helped make the decision to bring me in. They bought into my philosophy. The thing I challenged them with is to win a National Championship. They’ve won a Peach Belt championship, they’ve been to the regionals, so they see a little bit further than that. So far, so good.”
The Cougars jumped out to a fast start, reeling off nine straight wins to start the season. They haven’t lost since a January seventh defeat at the hands of USC Aiken. 13 wins in a row propelled the Cougars to the top of the DII rankings. Now 22-1 and PBC West Division champs, CSU is No. 5 in this week’s Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Poll.
They have done it behind one of the most suffocating defenses in the nation. They are No. 1 in the Peach Belt Conference, allowing just 57 points a game, 19th best in DII. The Cougars have the fourth-best scoring margin in DII thanks to a scoring offense ranked 15th in DII with 79 points a game.
“I am a defensive coach,” Howard said. “I believe that defense is ultimately your offense. That was one of the things I quickly changed a little bit. I wanted to make sure our defensive pressure was felt out of the gate. Luckily we had some strong defenders returning, and then the young ladies I was able to bring in were the type of athletes that could run my system.
“We have some great offensive weapons, but your offense can be off some nights. We want to make sure our defense is top notch. If you can stop a team, you have big chance at being successful.”
Second chances are rare for opponents, and they are tough to defend in the paint. Forwards Ashley Asouzu and Alexis Carter combine for 30.5 points and 19 rebounds a game, while chipping in 102 combined blocks this season. Asouza was also recently part of a very special night for the Cougars. She and fellow senior Brittany Tatum both scored their 1000th point in the same game. That same night, Howard picked up her 100th career victory.
“I’m glad it was in front of our home fans,” Howard said. “It was our breast cancer awareness game, which is an initiative near and dear to my heart. And I love the color pink, so we got to wear my favorite color.
“Our two captains got to score their 1000th point. Out of the gate they were both driven and ready to go. I saved the two timeouts for both of them to enjoy their moment. To have them both score their 1000th point and pick up my 100th win against a very strong Clayton State, it was a surreal night.”
Asouzu and Tatum are part of a cohesive unit that has no standout scorer. Instead Howard has made sure that all 16 Columbus State players have contributed to the team’s amazing run. Having won their last 10 straight games by double-digits, everyone has been able to get into the act.
“I always believe in building up the weakest link,” Howard said. “Whether that’s a walk-on or the end of the bench, I want to make sure that she feels that she’s part of the success. I’m a big believer of winning by committee. It’s a better atmosphere on the bench and in practice.”
The PBC tournament is now a guarantee. The next step is getting over the hump and escaping the regional tournament that has been a thorn in the Cougars’ side the past three seasons. Howard thinks this senior-laden group is ready to make some noise.
“I think we’re on a good note going into the tournament,” Howard said. “I want to keep them focused and competitive. I definitely think this is a team that can go to the national tournament and make some noise.
“I want make sure that they know that it’s a process. We want to win the conference. We want to win the region. We try to visualize everything in practice and know that any given day we can be beaten. We’re going to get everybody’s best, so we need to be our best at all times.”