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Athletics Department - News

Best program isn't the biggest

March 9, 2007

Men's and women's teams have tall postseason expectations

By CHRIS DEARING
Special to The State

Quick, off the top of your head, name the most successful basketball program - men and women's combined - in the Palmetto State this season.

Winthrop or College of Charleston? Nope. They have solid men's programs, but the women lack success.

How about Francis Marion or Charleston Southern? Neither one would qualify.

Furman or Wofford? Not even in the discussion.

Don't even try to bring the two big schools, South Carolina or Clemson, into the mix.

Try tiny Benedict, whose men's and women's squads are in the field of 64 for the NCAA Division II tournament.

The women's team is 20-10 and earned the automatic berth that went with winning the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament. They will play today as the No. 8 seed in the South Region and face the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Florida Gulf Coast (29-0).

The men's team won the regular-season SIAC title with a 25-4 record to earn a No. 3 seed and will play No. 6 seed Eckerd (25-5) on Saturday.

"Both of our programs are on the rise," fifth-year men's coach and Benedict alumni Fred Watson said. "We've gotten good backing from the administrators, and they've given us the things we need to be successful. I guess it would be safe to say that we have one of the better combined programs in the state."

The women's team was the runner-up in the SIAC during the regular season. It overcame several key injuries during the early part of the season.

Natasha Gray missed time with a hip injury, Val McQueen, the top perimeter shooter on the team, had a couple of injuries that set her back, and Aja Trotter missed time with a pulled hamstring. Throw in a couple of rolled ankles, and it took a while for every thing to come together. The Tigers have won 10 of 11 entering the tournament.

"We certainly started off slower than we anticipated," said second-year coach and former Eau Claire star Felicia Jenkins said. "We had everybody coming back, so we were looking for a big season until the injury bug bit us.

"As we got healthier and worked harder, the brighter side started coming at the right time, and we're peaking when we need to."

Jenkins came to Benedict from Claflin University, where she played and coached. She said her two years with Benedict have made her a better coach.

"I'm new coming into this environment, but I feel we stack up with the other programs around the state," Jenkins said. "Coach Watson has helped me along the way. He does a really good job with the men's program, and sometimes I watch them to learn as much as I can."

Watson has been a mainstay at Benedict since the early 1990s. He is the school's all-time leading scorer and has been named conference coach of the year three times in his five years at the helm. He was a unanimous choice this season by his fellow coaches.

His teams have won two regular-season titles and one conference championship during that span. After being eliminated in the first round of the national tournament last season, he hopes his Tigers stick around much longer.

Benedict limped down the stretch by losing two if its final three, but Watson isn't concerned.

"I like our chances pretty good," Watson said. "A lot of our guys don't have much experience in this type of setting, but I think they learned a lot in the conference tournament."

And the rest of South Carolina is learning about a budding powerhouse basketball program at Benedict.

Source: The State Newspaper

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