Head coach AnnMarie Gilbert is trying to build a DII women’s basketball powerhouse at Virginia Union. In 2017, her second season at the helm, she led the Panthers to their first national championship game since 1984.
While a bulk of that team returned this season the Panthers lost one big piece -- reshirt senior Lady Walker. The post player from Cleveland, Ohio left the program as one of the most decorated players in its history. She was the all-time leading rebounder (1,204) and fourth all-time leading scorer (1,513).
So Gilbert went out and replaced Walker with not one, but two new stars in Richmond, Virginia.
"After the first year we lost Kiana Johnson," Gilbert told NCAA.com. "You wonder how you're going to replace her. The team came together and was led by Lady Walker. Well, then you lost Lady Walker, the player of the year in the CIAA. Then you wonder in Year 3 if you can sustain and keep it going like the other great coaches in college basketball do. You wonder how you're going to do it.
"We returned 12 players and the two newcomers we brought in were these twins. They're small, and I think a lot of people passed on them because they are small. The moment I saw their highlight clips, they're just two kids painted in my own image. They reminded me a whole of Kiana Johnson, but as a freshman, and there's two of them."
Shameka and Shareka McNeill are the VUU freshman wonder twins who are already leaving an early mark on the Panthers program. A quick bio on the two is probably best. The McNeiil's hail from Charlotte, N.C. where both were 1,000 point scorers for Harding High School. Shareka is older by three minutes and is listed as one inch taller (5'6) than her twin, and perhaps most oddly enough, Shameka is lefty and Shareka, a righty.
"People tried to convince me that there was a better one," Gilbert said. "The only difference to me is that one is a point and one is a two. Both of these kids are awesome. They can shoot the 3, the pull-up, the free throw, the lay-up. They can defend, they're quick, they help us press. They are really special."
The two, dubbed the “Twin Terrors”, are both in the starting rotation for the Panthers. They have won Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Rookie of the Week honors a combined five times already.
SHAMEKA MCNEILL - CIAA ROOKIE OF THE WEEK!... https://t.co/s16CbptoOv— Virginia Union Sport (@VUUPanthers) December 19, 2017
Their games are similar, Shameka wearing No. 3 and Shareka No. 4. Their stats are eerily similar as well. Shareka is averaging 13.0 points per game with 2.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Shameka is averaging 9.2 points per game, chipping in 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Shameka leads the team with 2.52 steals per game, while Shareka steals 2.0 per game.
"We both are driven people that like to go to the basket," Shameka said. "I'm more of the driver and my sister is more of the shooter. She's aggressive. You don't know what she's going to do. Be ready for good defense, that's what I can tell you."
"Quick, fast," Shareka said of her sister. "Able to beat anyone off the dribble. We're both quick, she can pull up and shoot the three or drive the ball."
After four years of being high school stars, the McNeiil sisters now have four more years to mature side by side in the starting lineup. On a Virginia Union team that is 44-6 over the past two seasons, that's a very special bond.
"It's awesome playing with my sister," Shameka said. "Four more years I get to enjoy playing ball with my sister. I really like it here. There were other schools that were involved, but I felt like this could really be home for me and my sister."
"It's great," Shareka added. "She knows where I'm going to be on the court, or I know what move she's about to do, or if I have to rebound and kick it back to her."
The McNeill twins also had another special moment earlier in the season. Virginia Union returned to their hometown of Charlotte to play Johnson C. Smith right before the break. With family and friends in attendance, Shareka scored, what at the time, was a career-best 19 points.
"The feeling was great," Shareka said. "Being back in Charlotte, that just hyped me up. I had to show out in my city."
Gilbert -- who was an assistant at Michigan State and coached at Eastern Michigan -- brings a Division I style to her offseason and practice regimen. That makes it all the more impressive that not only have the twins adapted to the team on the floor, but in the classroom as well. Shareka, a criminal justice major, had a 4.0 in the fall, while Shameka, a business major, landed a 3.1.
Of course, the twins can have loads of fun as well. That's not always so fun to others.
"Today, my sister made a little pass she shouldn't have done, and I yelled, 'my bad'," Shameka said with a laugh. "We mix it up sometimes, they don't know who's who."
"We like to have fun with the team," Shareka said. "It only makes the bond stronger. We're able to come out on the court and have that strong bond in what we do."
So, just how similar are Shameka and Shareka?
|Favorite sports movie?||Love & Basketball||Love & Basketball|
|Favorite athelte?||Westbrook, love his meanness on the court||I love me some Russell Westbrook|
|Favorite team?||Golden State, they're a really good shooting team||Warriors|
|What celebrity would you most like to have lunch with?||That's tough, there's a bunch.||Chris Brown|
|What's in your headphones pregame?||Guys like NBA Youngboy. I like hype music.||I like to get hyped up, get the adrenaline running.|
|Favorite meal?||Chicken tenders and fries, that makes my day.||Tenders with macaroni.|
|Any talents outside of hoops?||I can draw.||I play a little bit of soccer.|
|Who wins one-on-one?||Ooh, we don't like to play. It doesn't end well.||We don't play anymore. It gets a little physical.|
Just how bad are those one-on-one matchups? The twins talked about it earlier in the season. It's probably for the best they don't play anymore.