WSSU basketball clocked in on Tuesday for its home opener, knocking off Mount Olive 88-68 in front of a capacity crowd in the C.E. Gaines Center.
It was the first time the team took the floor in front of its fans following a run to its 13th CIAA title and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The majority of that team is no longer with the program. Key role players and two-time CIAA champions Jonathan Hicklin and Xavier Fenell graduated, while key starters Samage Teel (Presbyterian) and Jaylon Gibson (UNCG) hit the transfer portal and landed at the Division I level. Only three starters remain — sophomore swingman KC Shaw, two-time champion Jaylen Alston and now-seasoned point guard Issac Parson.
While Shaw is still coming into his own, Parson and Alston have been a force to be reckoned with through the first week of the season.
Alston, an undersized forward even in the CIAA at 6’4, is averaging 19 points on 62 percent shooting. That includes a career-high 31 points on Tuesday night against Mount OIive as he shot 11 for 12 from the field.
“The atmosphere was great,” Jaylen Alston said after the game. “I just love playing the Gaines Center and being able to be in front of all the fans and the Ramily. I had it going tonight. My teammates had a good job. Of course, Issac caught me on a lot of plays, so it was good.”
Head coach Cleo Hill had nothing but praise for the senior who has been a catalyst to WSSU winning a CIAA title in both seasons he’s been with the team.
“I don’t know if there’s enough words for him, but I think what he does spreads throughout the team,” Hill said. “I think — his intensity and approach to everything from from weight lifting to practice, the preseason conditioning, scouting reports — I think his approach goes throughout the team and I thought it was infectious tonight and it shows by his numbers.”
That’s what you expect to hear from a player coming off a Most Outstanding Performer honor at the 2023 CIAA Tournament.
Parson taking the reins for WSSU offense
Issac Parson wasn’t on the floor when WSSU beat Lincoln to win the CIAA title in Baltimore in February. He had to watch the game from the sidelines in a sling after a wrist injury following a nasty fall in a grueling semifinal contest against Virginia Union. He’s quickly making up for lost time this season, though.
“I think that’s the driving force. I think not being in that championship game and in the first NCAA tournament game, I think that really fueled his his rehab this summer,” Hill said. “And I’ve been coaching a long time. I don’t think that I’ve had a player with his work ethic and I have players that really worked hard and players that were really good. But his work ethic is kind of second to none right now. What he does in his preparation and with the weights and the conditioning and the film study — he puts a lot into his basketball game and I think you’re seeing it now.”
The Kinston, NC native is averaging 19 points per game while shooting a scorching 56 percent from the field and an eye-popping 63 percent from the 3-point line. He’s also averaging 5.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists. With his running mate Teel gone to D1, the show is now completely in his hands and he’s being tasked with being a leader for the new-look Rams.
“We just got to keep doing what we’re doing in practice— talking and helping the new guys,” Parson said after the game. “We got 11 new guys, so they haven’t been here before and they’re new to the program. Hoop (Alston) been here for four years. I’ve been here for three. So we just got to keep showing the way.”
While Parson and Alston are playing up to their preseason All-CIAA selection status, WSSU hasn’t quite found its third scorer yet. Shaw is the only member of the team outside those two playing more than 20 minutes so far. Alston sounds confident he and Parson will have the help they need to help defend their title.
“We know we have two people to rely on, but we also got other people get step up,” Alston said. “It’s a pretty deep team, so it’s going be good to see what everybody else can do as well.”
Perhaps the team will find those tertiary options this weekend as it heads up to Connecticut for the CP3 HBCU Tip-Off. This year’s appearance is the second for WSSU in the showcase’s three-year history. WSSU lost to Virginia Union in the inaugural championship game in 2021, an experience Issac Parson remembers vividly.
“I feel like my freshman year, we kind of like took it for granted,” Parson said. “You know, we were just so shocked at like what was going on. We was playing in a big arena. Arena had a casino in it. I was just telling the guys we just got to take advantage of opportunities we get here.”