In front of a home crowd at James L. Robb Gymnasium, with her family and friends watching, Hunter Simpson couldn’t have imagined a much better setting for rewriting the Tennessee Wesleyan record book.
And that the Lady Bulldogs picked up an always-important win against an Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) opponent in the process, dominating most of the way to a 63-50 victory over Columbia College, made Wednesday night as ideal as it could get.
With a coast-to coast trip ending in an assertive drive to the hoop for a layup, the senior from Madisonville became the all-time scoring leader in TWU women’s basketball history, her 11th and 12th points with 49 seconds before halftime moving Simpson ahead of the previous all-time mark of 1,586 points set by Monique Herron from 2000-2004.
Coach Jeff Rice called a timeout immediately after to honor Simpson at half court as the new record holder.
“It was very good I was able to do this with a win,” said Simpson in an interview with The Daily Post-Athenian. “I am very excited, and I’m glad it was at home, too, because it was fun.”
Simpson had tied Herron’s old record with a free throw 14 seconds earlier, and she finished Wednesday’s game with 13 points — with her career points total at 1,589 and counting with nine regular-season games left.
“It’s really nice to just get that done first, there in the first half so it doesn’t linger, no pressure, none of that type stuff,” Rice said. “We’re really excited for what she’s accomplished and what she’s still got left to accomplish. She deserves all the accolades she gets. Nobody has worked harder during her career. Nobody has practiced harder, nobody plays harder, so we’re just really, really glad she’s at Tennessee Wesleyan.”
Wesleyan (12-7, 10-7 AAC) avenged a stunning loss it sustained in November on the road at Columbia. The Koalas were again showing a 2-3 zone that frustrated TWU into 8-18 field goal shooting in the first quarter. Despite that, the Lady Bulldogs still led 19-12 at the end of the period.
“They’re really good and long with that 2-3 (zone), and we missed some shots early,” Rice said. “And you always worry about how that’s going to affect everything.”
Rice even hinted that zone could’ve very well affected Simpson’s ability to set the all-time record Wednesday — but was glad it didn’t.
“All of her family and friends get to be here, and they had their little section over there,” Rice said. “And once you get close, you just don’t want that to linger. And against that 2-3 zone tonight she could’ve also have gotten 10 points and 10 assists, instead. But I’m glad it was done early, and we’re just really excited for what she has accomplished.”
Signing with Wesleyan out of Sequoyah High School, where she had led the Lady Chiefs to the 2014 Region 3-AA championship, Simpson had no idea that she would become the Lady Bulldogs’ all-time leading scorer. Until this year, she said she hadn’t given it much thought – but averaging more than 400 points for her first three seasons playing meant the record was within her reach.
“I was definitely working for it this year, but I didn’t expect it at all before,” Simpson said.
Simpson’s time at Wesleyan started out inauspiciously, with an ACL tear in her first game immediately ending her true freshman season and resulting in a medical redshirt. She was hurt that she couldn’t play with teammates whom she regarded as mentors, but at the same time, looking back on it, being sidelined that year helped mold Simpson into the force she’s been at TWU.
“I really wanted to play with those seniors, and so I was very upset,” Simpson said. “But it helped me grow because I got to sit on the bench and listen to everything that was happening on the bench and watch everything. And staying here, everything happens for a reason.”
Simpson’s teammates have changed over her five years as a Lady Bulldog, but one constant is that she gives them all credit for her success.
“They’ve all been great, every single year,” Simpson said. “My freshman year, we had seniors who helped me become so much better, and sophomore year as well. And now I have freshman teammates, and they’ve all been great, every single player has just been great.”
And Simpson’s current teammates played a large role in making Wednesday special, with Savannah Atkins starting the second quarter with a two and a three. TWU led 34-22 at halftime after improving its shooting to better than 50 percent from the floor.
A 17-7 third quarter for the Lady Bulldogs, propelled by two 3-pointers from Jacobi Lynn and a trey each from Atkins and Hannah Cherry, put the game out of reach. The long-distance barrage from the three former McMinn Central standouts helped put Wesleyan up 50-25 with 1:42 left in the third, and Columbia never got closer than 13 points despite Lady Bulldog reserves getting ample time on the floor the rest of the way.
Atkins ended up with Wesleyan’s team high of 14 points, making four shots from behind the arc, and Lynn finished with 11.
“Savannah stepped up and made four (3-pointers), and we were able to get inside where we wanted it,” Rice said.
“I didn’t think we were as sharp as we had been for the last two games, but I’ve heard a lot of people talk, and it’s hard to get up for three straight games.”
Wesleyan’s basketball teams, both men and women, are on the road Saturday, continuing conference play at Point University. The women’s game tips off at 2 p.m. and the men at 4 p.m.