Winston-Salem resident coaches undefeated Livingstone women

Winston-Salem resident coaches  undefeated  Livingstone women
February 05
00:00 2015

A look back at recent seasons tells you much about the women’s basketball program at Livingstone College. The Lady Blue Bears were at or near the bottom of the stack in the CIAA. For this season, though, it’s a totally different story line.

Livingstone, ranked 11th in the USA Today Division II Coach’s Poll on Jan. 30, is undeniably the surprise team of 2014-15. The past two seasons haven’t been kind: The program had a woeful .384 winning percentage. At the start of February, Livingstone was still undefeated at 20-0 overall and 11-0 CIAA.

Enter first-year coach Anita Howard, who produced a similar quick turnaround during her two-year stay at Salem College. At Salem, a Division III program, Howard transformed a struggling program from being the bottom-feeder of the Great South Athletic Conference, to being the conference champ that earned a NCAA Tournament bid.

With less than a month left in the regular season, there’s no way to determine if Livingstone will have that same level of success so soon. What is apparent is that the Lady Blue Bears are the real deal. There’s no denying that Howard is a prime factor in the program’s meteoric rise.

Nobody in the CIAA saw this coming. In the pre-season polls and predictions, Livingstone was picked to finish last in the six-team Southern Division.

“We’re starting at the bottom and working our way to the top,” said Howard, who started her college coaching career at Winston-Salem State in 2006. “These young ladies have bonded at the right time. They’re mentally tough and they go hard day in and day out. That’s why we’re blessed to be where we are today.”

During Howard’s career, defense has become the hallmark of her teams. At Salem, the Spirits ranked among the national leaders in Division III in several categories. While the Blue Bears haven’t quite reached that level yet, there has been marked improvement. Howard believes in the grit factor. That means boxing out for rebounds, not missing defensive assignments, and being willing to dive on the floor for loose balls.

“Playing tough defense is about giving 100 percent effort,” said Howard, who was voted Conference Player of the Year during her college-playing days at Fort Valley State and Armstrong Atlantic State. “It doesn’t take talent and skills. There’s no such thing as being pretty on defense. It’s getting in the face of opponents, yelling, hollering and making the offense feel uncomfortable.”

One factor not to be forgotten about the revamped version of Livingstone is Howard’s familiarity with the style of play in the CIAA. After serving in key assistant positions at Shaw and St. Augustine’s, Howard is well-versed on what it takes to win in the conference. The fruits of her first recruiting class are a reflection of what she knows about bringing in the right personnel.

“The tempo in the CIAA is up-and-down and it’s fast, so you need quickness and athleticism,” said Howard, who lives in Winston-Salem with her husband, Theo and three children. “I was able to bring in the new pieces we needed to go with the returning players. But there was one concern. I signed some basketball divas, players who came from larger programs. The only question was how long it might take to develop team chemistry. The divas and the returning players hit it off from the very start, on and off the court. This group believes they believe they can accomplish great things this season.”

On the front line, power forward Kyra Crosby, a 6-foot-1 senior transfer from Georgia State, leads the team in scoring (13.6 points per game) and rebounds (6.6 per game). Crosby is followed by Cierra York and Precious Roberts (both average 12.9 points per game). JUCO transfer Amber Curtis, nicknamed “Kobe” because of her scoring prowess, has the capability to score points in a hurry, especially from 3-point range.

“This season has been a journey and it’s been enjoyable,” said Crosby. “No two games are the same. So, I’m always looking forward to seeing what kind of adjustments we end up making in order to continue winning games.”

Roberts’ decision to leave Prairie View A&M and come to Livingstone was heavily influenced by Toni Gore, her community college coach at Indian River State (Fla). For Roberts, Gore’s strong recommendation carried a lot of weight.

“Coach Gore was the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Roberts. “So when she told me that she mentored Coach Howard, I was very interested. Even when we first talked on the phone, I had a real good feeling about Livingstone. I love how Coach Howard treats us as players and as women. I know I made the right choice.”

In case folks don’t know by now, women’s basketball at Livingstone isn’t what it used to be. The Lady Blue Bears have played every team in the conference and demonstrated that they are no flukes. Along the way, they’ve raised some eyebrows and turned some heads. “It’s a new day at Livingstone,” said Howard. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”

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Craig Greenlee

Craig Greenlee

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