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RANGELY I If you ask Colorado Northwestern Community College women’s basketball coach Antowin Edwards, beating the Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) Bruins on their own court was arguably the biggest win in the history of the women’s basketball program.
On Jan. 31, the Lady Spartans defeated the Bruins 50-46, using a full-court press and intense zone defense to force the Bruins to take long shots, many of which fell short.
The victory was one of a string of wins this year against competitors that have dominated the Lady Spartans in past seasons.
On Nov. 13, the Lady Spartans beat the Western Wyoming Community College (WWCC) Mustangs 73-66 in the Mustangs’ Rushmore Gym. On Dec. 15, the Spartans defeated the College of Southern Idaho, this year’s Region 18 champions, 74-68. And on Feb. 23, they took on the Snow College Badgers at home and won 57-46.
CNCC’s wins against the Mustangs and Badgers were firsts in Edwards’ four-year tenure as head coach.
“It’s always been close against the Mustangs,” Edwards said. “To actually pull out a win on their floor, to dominate them beginning to end, it was the biggest win of the year. The next biggest win was beating Snow at home. We pretty much hammered them. For us to be in a position where we’re actually beating these teams says a lot about how far we’ve come.”
Changes in the program’s basic culture have brought the team to where it is now, Edwards said. That includes maintaining a stable coaching staff, cultivating a “win” mentality in the players and recruiting graduating athletes into four-year schools.
“When I first got here, the Spartans were 0-57,” Edwards said. “They hadn’t won a game in two years, hadn’t won a league game in five or six years. Now, the young ladies understand they’re not going to be given anything, from the other team respecting us to the officials giving us calls. For 40 minutes, we have to be doing our jobs. We don’t have to play perfect basketball, but we have to play almost flawlessly.”
Players also have to put academics where it belongs: ahead of athletics. As of this May, 16 of the 24 sophomores Edwards has coached will have been graduated from CNCC. Two more will likely finish this summer.
It’s all part of the solid work ethic and positive attitude required to stay on the team.
“This year’s team bought into the system that we play hard, work hard, condition hard,” Edward said. “You always have some kids who don’t quite fit your system, and we’ve done a good job of cycling out the bad attitudes. I guessed right this year. In JUCO, a lot of it’s about guessing which kids are going to fit your program.”
Next year, Edwards won’t have to guess so much. Eight players slated to return next year include wing and “defensive dynamo” Kehana Grayer, power forward Nyahak Bile, and shooting guard Julie Harless. Point guard Madison Peterson and center Attirah Munir will also be back.
“These kids have a chance to be special for us,” Edwards said. “They’ve started throughout the course of the year and played big minutes. They’re good students but also good ball players.”
As he recruits, Edwards said he isn’t necessarily interested in the high school superstars. He wants kids who will get it right in the classroom and keep their priorities straight.
“I try my best to recruit to me as a coach and the institution’s academic prowess,” Edwards said. “It’s strong academically. You come here, you get a good degree. The kids I have now, they know why they’re here. It’s books first, then the game.”
Two weeks ago, the Spartan women ended the season with a 14-16 record, the fourth best in Region 18. Edwards said that this year’s team tied for the most wins a CNCC women’s basketball team has earned in two decades.
“We probably should have finished up 18-12; we gave up four games we should have won,” Edwards said. “But that’s a sign of a team that’s growing. They give away games they don’t know yet how to win. But that’s going to come.”