Owls are flying high at Warren Wilson College

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Success is nothing new for the women’s basketball team at Warren Wilson College. The Owls won a program-record 17 games two seasons ago and matched the mark again last year.

After a tough 0-3 start to the 2017-18 season, the Owls are flying at heights previously unseen in DeVries Gymnasium after wrapping up the first half of the season with a 81-72 win over Hiwassee College Dec. 12. Now on Christmas break, the team has a 10-5 record.

The victory over the Hiwassee Tigers was the fourth in a row for Warren Wilson, which posted a trio of winning streaks this season on its way to program-record number 4 ranking in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association.

Freshman Tierney Porter hits a crucial free throw late in the game in the Owls' 76-74 win at home over NCAA Division III opponent Mars Hill University Dec. 5.

"Even though we were returning key players from last year's team, we were relying on freshmen who were playing big minutes at the beginning," said head coach Robin Davis, in her fourth season at Warren Wilson. "Early in the season we weren't quite figuring out lineups and how to fit the pieces together. The cohesion we had last year wasn't quite there."

That changed when Davis tried an unorthodox approach to practice prior to the Owls' games against Montreat College Nov. 7. Needing to make her team gel on the court, the coach told two-time All-American Danasia Dumas to run 200 "suicides," an exhausting running drill involving multiple sprints. 

"I knew this practice would make or break the team," Davis said. "I had to figure out as a coach how to come together and become a team. My intent was to see how long it would take a teammate to ask if they could help her do them. The whole practice was designed to make them figure out as a team how to solve problems together."

After starting slowly offensively, Warren Wilson College junior Danasia Dumas eclipsed the 20-point mark in each of the five games that ended the first half of the season.

It worked. 

The Owls picked up their first win of the season the following night in Montreat, 82-69. Two nights later at home, Warren Wilson dominated Piedmont International University, 93-68. The team drew to an even 3-3 record by knocking off Washington Adventist University in overtime Nov. 12. 

The three-game streak was snapped by NCAA Division III opponent Bethel University, but the Owls bounced back and won their final two games of November over Columbia International University and Johnson University, respectively. 

"We're too talented not to figure out how to win," Davis said. "It was only a matter of time before we found our groove."

The Owls have been nothing short of impressive since the beginning of December. They opened the month with one of the most convincing victories in the program's history, throttling the Georgia Northwestern Technical College Bobcats, 105-40. 

Junior Amber Godfrey, left, the Owls' leading scorer through the first half of the season, talks to freshman guard Tierney Porter between possessions in a Dec. 5 win at home against Mars Hill University.

The Bobcats, a fellow USCAA team, came into the contest ranked no. 6 in the league, two spots higher than Warren Wilson at the time. 

"That was a statement win," Davis said of her team's performance, in which the Owls allowed only 5 points in the first quarter and 15 in the first half. 

Warren Wilson set a program record for steals in a game with 30. The game was only the second time in team history the Owls eclipsed the century mark. Once again, a three-game winning streak the Owls had was snapped, with a loss to NCAA Division I UNC Asheville Dec. 4. 

The Owls would make another statement on the court the following night when NCAA Division III Mars Hill University came to Swannanoa. Dumas, who scored more than 20 points for the first time this season in Asheville the night before, poured in 25 points against the Lions on the way to a 76-74 victory. Those performances earned Dumas player of the week honors.

That win showed that Warren Wilson women's basketball means business, according to Davis. It also helped propel them into the number 4 spot in the USCAA.

"That's a huge win for us," Davis said. "I struggle to recruit local players because we don't have scholarships and we're not known for being a basketball school. But this season we beat two of the local schools that we lose recruits to every year."

Warren Wilson won its final four games of the first half, including a win on the road against number 15 University of Cincinnati-Clermont, another USCAA opponent. 

In spite of her team's first-half performance, Davis believes the Owls' best basketball is ahead of them. 

"We've played some of our best defensive basketball so far this season," she said. "So when scoring becomes more consistent and we're getting more than two players each game putting up double digits, I don't think anybody in our league will be able to beat us."

That could mean lead to another record falling at Warren Wilson, the coach said. 

"I think we can get to 20 wins this season," Davis said. "I think we could be looking at one of the top teams going into the tournament this year."

Last year's 17 wins weren't enough to earn a spot in the USCAA tournament, a decision that left a bad taste in many players' mouths. So what does it mean for fellow USCAA teams in the postseason tournament if the Owls continue to play as well in the second half of the season as they did in the first?

"I wouldn't want to play us," Davis said. "That's for sure."