Cougars hang a loss on East Carolina

Mikaela Hopkins and Megan Fisher were the leaders in re-bounds for the Cougars (Lynsey Cichon/GSO)

On Dec. 10, 1718, the Admiralty of the city of Charleston finally said goodbye to Stede Bonnet, the infamous Gentleman Pirate of the Carolina coast, down on the Battery. Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham didn’t do much better on their trips to the Lowcountry. (It’s history, folks; look it up.)

Pirates have never fared very well in the Holy City, and it didn’t get any easier for them on Friday night.

The College of Charleston held off the East Carolina Pirates, 58-43, in the inaugural game of the 2011-12 women’s basketball season on the strength of a massive debut from Mikaela Hopkins.

Hopkins, a 6-foot, 5-inch freshman from Augusta, Ga., dominated the paint against the Pirates, recording 14 points and 17 rebounds. The 17 boards is good for fifth all-time in the history of the program. When she wasn’t getting rebounds, she was keeping the ball alive for her teammates to bring it down.

Hopkins entered the game with 11 minutes to play in the first half as the Cougars were struggling to overcome an early 15-7 deficit. Her entry, and some timely turnovers from East Carolina, sparked a run. Hopkins got her first collegiate points less than a minute later, and her put-back four minutes later tied the game at 16-16. Charleston controlled the rest of the half, taking a 25-22 lead into the break.

Junior Cathryn Hardy gives a strong contribution to the game with 13 points and six rebounds (Lynsey Cichon/GSO)

They came out hard in the second half and pushed the lead to as many as 17, while leading in points in the paint, points off turnovers and second-chance points.

Head coach Nancy Wilson knew that her young team – the Cougars are playing without a single senior – was capable of putting together good runs, but didn’t foresee a 15-point win over a team that won the Conference USA tournament just four seasons ago.

“I didn’t know what to expect today,” Wilson said. “We have felt good about this team. I thought we came out with a lot of energy and played really well tonight. We got great play from our freshmen and from our upperclassmen as well.”

While Wilson felt good, though, Hopkins was unsure when she’d even enter the game, and, based on a timid offensive performance in the Cougars’ only exhibition, had no great aspirations once she got there.

“In the exhibition game, I was so nervous, and I was praying to God that Coach wasn’t going to put me in,” Hopkins said. “This game, I just knew that I had to step up because Tish (junior forward Latisha Harris) sprained her ankle. So I just said, ‘You’ve got to want this. You’ve got to want to go in the game.’ I just had to change my mentality.”

The game wasn’t always pretty. The Cougars hovered around 35% for most of the night before finishing at 37.5%. They had 28 turnovers, and collected enough fouls to leave the Pirates in the double-bonus for more than 10 minutes at the end of the game. If East Carolina could have overcome its own ineptitude at the free-throw line, the final score would have been much even closer.

But as the Cougars were coming down the stretch in the second half, the arena was beginning to fill up with fans for the men’s 7:30 tip-off against Holy Cross. Hopkins and freshman Christy Hewatt, who also scored 14, noticed and thrived off the energy.

“It’s awesome,” Hewatt said. “It’s a big momentum changer from coming in and it’s empty and quiet, and then you come in in the second half and all of a sudden you hear people cheering. You make a basket and it gets louder and louder, and that just really adds to your momentum and excitement.”

“I don’t think people realize how much having fans there just cheering you on really pumps the players up and makes them want to push forward, because they have people to share it with when you win,” said Hopkins.

Wilson has already announced that this will be her last season at the helm of the Cougars, bringing to an end a legendary career in Charleston athletics. Wilson enters the 2011-12 season with a career record of 535-342, with a 304-192 all-time mark with the Cougars.

Cougars celebrate their win against East Carolina (Lynsey Cichon/GSO)

She started her head coaching career with the College in 1976, and coached here until 1984. She then went to South Carolina, where she coached for 12 seasons and took the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament five times. She rejoined the Cougars in 2003, and led the program to a school-record 23 wins in 2008-09. When her Cougars defeated Georgia Southern on Feb. 16, 2009, she became just the 24th coach in the history of the women’s game with 500 victories.

The Cougars start a tough three-game road trip on Monday at Coastal Carolina. They face the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Nov. 17, before taking on in-state foe South Carolina in Columbia on Wednesday, Nov. 23. They finally return to the friendly confines of TD Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 30, when they host the Charleston Southern Buccaneers.

“(Coastal) is probably at the same stage of development that we are,” Wilson said. “When we go to Georgia and South Carolina, we know that we’ll be battling some very physical bodies, so we look at those games as opportunities for us to get tougher, and to get more physical, and to just see what we do against them.”


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