By Noah Stern
For the first time in team history, the High Point University women’s basketball team has made the NCAA tournament. The Panthers, led by Big South Head Coach of the Year Chelsea Banbury, finished the regular season with a 19-6 record and a 14-3 record against their Big South opponents.
They won all three of their Big South tournament games by a combined 55 points, securing the Big South Championship title for the first time in HPU history. The team had only won the regular season championship two previous times before the 2021 season. It’s an incredible achievement for a team that has worked hard for this all season long.
High Point’s leader this season has been Skyler Curran, a junior guard who was named the 2021 Big South Player of the Year. Curran led the team in scoring at a 17.9 ppg clip and 7.2 rebounds per game. She has been the backbone of the team, but to make the NCAA tournament, there needs to be consistent secondary scoring. Enter redshirt sophomore Jenson Edwards. Edwards was the Scottie Pippen to Curran’s Michael Jordan.
She was the only other Panther to average double digit scoring this season at 14.7 ppg. Edwards also led HPU in total steals, field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage. The two players were key for the Panthers all year. They delivered in crucial moments to push this team to the top.
“We look for each other,” said Curran on her relationship with Jenson. “We’re close off the court, which helps us a lot on the court. We can read each other well, and we know what each other’s next move is going to be. If I don’t have an open shot, she’s the first person I’m going to look for. We just click.”
There were other solid contributors on the roster. Jordan Edwards, a junior guard, was the floor general and dished the ball off to the best scorers on the team. She led the team in total assists, racking up 136 in 27 games played. Callie Scheier, a sophomore guard, acted as the sixth woman off the bench for much of the season.
Scheier provides a spark of energy off the bench and a shooting touch that has allowed High Point to stay in games when their top two-point producers needed a rest. Claire Wyatt and Miya Bull clog up the interior, usually asked to defend the other teams’ center, also finding ways to put the ball in the cup on the offensive side. Other important players include redshirt freshman Cydney Johnson and senior Chyna McMichel, who played stout defense and provided valuable minutes off the bench.
“It’s definitely been a team effort,” said Banbury on the contributions of the entire team. “Skyler Curran and Jenson Edwards have gotten a lot of recognition, but [if] you look back at a lot of our games, and literally on any night, any player can show up and have 15-20 points, and I think that’s what got us here. The fact that we have multiple players that can score and have big games made it harder for teams to only focus on one or two players every night.”
Bringing home the Big South Championship and punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament has been a collaborative effort from every member of this team, with intense focus on their goal.
Their goal was achieved by defeating the Campbell Fighting Camels 62-46, in a game that High Point controlled all four quarters. During the second half, the Fighting Camels cut the lead to five, but High Point put a stop to their push and came out on top. When the final buzzer sounded, the team raved excitedly with the fans who were allowed back inside of the Millis Athletics and Convocation Center.
“I was very close to tears,” said Banbury. “[I’m] very proud of our team and everything they accomplished. When the buzzer sounded, I got to see the girls run onto the floor and see their hard work pay off. [They were] just actually enjoying the moment with each other. As a head coach, that’s the coolest part. Seeing the pure joy on their faces was definitely something I’ll remember.”
Coming into the season, the Panthers were ranked third in the Big South preseason poll. The teams ahead of them, Campbell University and Radford University, are teams that HPU went 5-0 against this season, winning those games by a combined 81 points.
The team truly dominated the Big South Conference and set records for the most wins in a season in HPU history, as well as the fewest losses since 1999. All this led to them to a face-off with their biggest contender to date: The University of Connecticut Huskies. Going into the NCAA tournament, the Panthers were given one of the four 16 seeds, lining them up to play one of the most renowned women’s basketball programs in the nation at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
“They’re really good,” said Curran, before playing their most challenging game yet. “They’re UConn. They’re always good, and they’re always here, so we’re just excited to get a chance to see them on the floor. When the jump ball goes up, it’s just another basketball game we’re trying to win, and we want to give them our best shot.”
After a hard-fought battle, during which the Panthers persisted with their best efforts until the final buzzer, they fell to the Huskies, 59-102.
“I’m proud of how our girls came out,” said Banbury. “They played hard, and I don’t think were too intimidated by the opponent…our girls came out and left everything out on the court. I’m proud of them and how we came out and gave it our best shot, especially for the first time being here.”
The HPU community tuned into ESPN and cheered on the team during a watch party in the Millis Center. It was the first HPU sporting event to have ever been aired live on the channel. The Panthers have received an outpouring of pride, encouragement and support from the communities inside and outside the campus gates. History was made at the Alamodome when the Panthers made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament, and fans across the country are already looking forward to seeing more of this women’s team in the future.