Sharpshooter McCoy bouncing back, stepping up for Hawks
Feb. 16, 2017
By Will DeBoer
PRINCESS ANNE, Maryland - It wasn’t supposed to be that bad. In the dying seconds of the first half of the Hawks’ season opener last year against Georgetown, Mariah McCoy had the ball stolen from her by the Hoyas’ Dorothy Adomako, leading to a buzzer-beating layup.
On the play, McCoy tweaked her right knee. The then-junior guard, who had never sustained a significant injury in her basketball career, had no reason to believe she wouldn’t shrug it off.
“I think at the time the people around me knew, they were just trying to protect me,” recalled McCoy about the hours and days after her knee gave out. “I remember going to get my MRI and starting rehab. Then I started realizing there were certain things that I was struggling with as far as the stability of my knee. That’s when I started thinking, ‘Okay, this could be season-ending.’”
McCoy tore her right ACL and required complete reconstructive surgery that would sideline her for the rest of the 2015-16 season.
“I was disappointed for her,” said Maryland Eastern Shore women’s basketball head coach Fred Batchelor. “But I liked the way she handled it, and I thought she did well to come back the way she did this year.”
The knee injury was the first major setback in a basketball career that saw the Rock Hill, South Carolina native steadily on the rise. After learning the ropes of the game in the backyard with her brother Devin – who would show young Mariah no mercy – McCoy arrived on the scene through area AAU tournaments.
“That was when I started getting my first looks, because that was the first time I ever really did travel basketball,” said McCoy. “That was when it really clicked that this is something I could probably do.”
Batchelor got a tip about this upcoming sharpshooter from a childhood friend who was working in North Carolina. He traveled to the Greensboro Sportsplex to see what all the fuss was about. It didn’t take him long to pick McCoy out of a crowd.
“Her fingernail polish matched her uniform, and she had no idea she was going to be wearing that color uniform,” Batchelor said. “That was her first day playing with the team. I thought she was so well put-together. Her hair was well-done, she carried herself, she was very well-mannered.
It wasn’t just an astute fashion sense that made McCoy stand out that day. During one quarter of action, she scored or assisted on every basket. For an established player, this would have been impressive; for someone playing with kids she had just met, astounding. Batchelor knew she had to be a Hawk.
“I was going through the process of looking at other schools,” said McCoy of her recruiting period. “When I came and visited (Princess Anne), it just stood out, the family atmosphere and the coaches. They really made me feel welcome, and that stuck with me.”
Despite the comfort level, McCoy said her choice was a difficult one. But Batchelor said he was confident she would choose to be a Hawk.
“It was a natural fit,” said Batchelor. “Some kids you just connect with. I can remember her coming on her visit with her mom and uncle, and after she watched us practice we went to Peaky’s restaurant for lunch. And we just kind of looked at each other. When she looked at me I knew she was coming to Eastern Shore.”
And come to Eastern Shore she did, making her presence felt almost immediately with what Batchelor recalled as “the best first college practice I’ve seen. I’ve never seen one as good as hers.”
That player subsequently disappeared for the next several months — as freshman are often prone to do — resurfacing on Jan. 29, 2014 when McCoy torpedoed NJIT for 27 points off the bench, still a career-high.
“Those first two seasons, they had a lot of trials and tribulations,” said McCoy. “But I think it made me a solid player. I think my mental toughness was the biggest thing that developed during those times.”
And nowhere did that mental toughness pay off more than in the 2015 MEAC Tournament quarterfinals. After an opening round win over N.C. Central, the Hawks ran into a Hampton team that had just won its fifth consecutive MEAC regular season championship and was charging toward its sixth straight tournament title. It was a David-versus-Goliath matchup, and Batchelor frantically searched for someone to cast the stone.
“Our point guard at the time, Jessica Long, told me that we needed players on the floor who wanted the ball, who weren’t scared,” recalled Batchelor. “And I said, ‘Who would that be?’ And she said Mariah McCoy was the first name that came to mind. We made the adjustment, going small, and we started her, and if we hadn’t made that adjustment we wouldn’t have made that run that year.”
Not yet a regular starter, McCoy notched eight points and pulled down a career-high eight rebounds – living up to Batchelor’s challenge to be aggressive on the boards – as Eastern Shore pulled off a shocking 52-50 win over the Lady Pirates. The Hawks went all the way to the MEAC championship game that week, and McCoy scored 12 points in the loss to Savannah State.
Coming off a surprise run to the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament, McCoy and Batchelor both had great expectations for the breakout star’s junior year.
“I was excited every year with Mariah because I knew there was going to be a moment for her to break out, break through, become the player she was capable of becoming,” said Batchelor.
Then came the ACL tear, not even one half of one game into the season. The breakthrough would have to wait.
“I had big expectations for that season,” said McCoy. “I worked so hard that summer and that preseason. It was mind-blowing: you put in all that effort, all that energy, and then something happens that’s just completely out of your control.”
Then came the arduous task of rehabbing one of the most serious injuries a basketball player can face, especially for an outside shooter so dependent on her legs. For McCoy, it was just one more test of mental toughness.
“Rehab was very tedious, but it teaches you endurance and it teaches you how to fight through things,” McCoy said. “Nothing comes easy. You have to learn to keep pushing, to have perseverance. That’s the biggest thing rehab will ever teach you.”
“You sometimes wonder if a kid can make it back from those injuries, but I saw her mind and her work to get through that rehab,” Batchelor said. “I saw sheer determination from her. There was no way she was not going to get back on that floor.”
The 2016-17 season came quickly. Though physically ready, McCoy had one last mental hurdle to clear: actually, taking the floor for her first game in a year. Though as nervous as she had ever been before a game, reassuring texts from teammates helped her overcome that final barrier. It didn’t hurt that she was playing better than she ever had before.
“The funny part is I remember coming back and playing and hearing my teammates telling me, ‘You don’t even look like you’ve been hurt,’” said McCoy. “That’s when I knew I was very confident coming back. I was confident, eager to play, and I think that continues to carry over.”
McCoy ranks in the top-20 in the MEAC in points per game and is one of the most prolific three-point shooters in the country.
“Coming off an ACL tear, you kind of have to taper your expectations to her recovery,” said Batchelor. “I think Mariah’s capable of being the best player in this league. She’s shown that some nights.”
If McCoy has shown flashes of greatness at various points this season, part of it is out of necessity. The Hawks lost point guard Ciani Byrom – one of the MEAC’s top floor generals – to a serious knee injury in the conference opener at North Carolina A&T on Jan. 9. For Batchelor, who had seen not just McCoy but also Briana Mack and TeAmber Burke go down the previous year with knee problems, it was a horrific sense of déjà vu, quelled only by one player’s grace under fire.
“Mariah was a rock in that game,” said Batchelor, who remembered seeing not just Hawk teammates but also Aggie players and coaches rubbernecking to spot Byrom on the bench, rather than focusing on the game. “She really held us together. I thought she was really strong and mature, especially after we lost that lead. She was solid for all of us.”
McCoy proved to be a rock on both ends for The Shore, sinking a fourth-quarter trey to give the Hawks the lead for good and coming up with a key last-minute steal to help preserve a 60-57 win over the Aggies. Once the game was over and the team learned the extent of Byrom’s injury, McCoy was there with encouraging words.
“I told her, ‘Things like this happen that are out of your control, but all you can do is bounce back,’” said McCoy to her fallen teammate. “From that moment forth I just tried to be the best leader I could possibly be for my team every night.”
And a leader she has been in some of Eastern Shore’s most crucial moments this season. The Hawks traveled to Bethune-Cookman on Jan. 21 to face a Lady Wildcat team that had yet to lose in the MEAC. After making several hustle plays on the sideline to put her team in position to win, McCoy sank a 25-foot 3-pointer from the right wing with 1.7 seconds to go, giving the Hawks a stunning 59-56 victory.
“Coach drew up a play that we had gone over in practice before and hadn’t worked,” said McCoy. “So I’m trying to go through every possible scenario in my head and I’m just like, ‘If it comes to me, I’m going to do what I normally do. I’m just going to relax.’ I was honestly very comfortable in that moment, and I think my teammates were too. We handled it extremely well.”
McCoy and company faced an even tougher task 11 days later, traveling to face old nemesis Hampton, which had won seven in a row to start the MEAC season (eight overall) and had only lost 10 home games since 2009-10. Down 50-29 halfway through the third quarter, the Hawks worked it back to nine down by the end of the third.
From there, McCoy took over. She scored 11 of her game-high 18 points in the final period, including the tying and go-ahead free throws with a minute to go. McCoy’s heroics again sank the Lady Pirates, and The Shore left Hampton with a sensational 68-65 win.
“You just love when you see kids have their moment,” said Batchelor with an understated grin. “Every time she shoots, I think it’s going in. When you’re around a player and you see them get that vibe, it’s just really nice to watch. And I’m glad she’s on my team because I’ve seen it from other kids, and you just become their victim.”
Though technically a senior, McCoy is expected to regain a year of eligibility after sitting out virtually all of last year with medical hardship; at this point, Batchelor considers it to be just a matter of completing paperwork. When and if she does come back for 2017-18, Batchelor considers her to be an early MEAC Player of the Year contender.
“I think you’re going to see everything come together for her,” predicted Batchelor. “It’s going to take her the summer to get in the best possible shape, but once she does, she’s going to be a kid who can dominate the league from beginning to end.”
Until then, McCoy has the rest of her season and schooling planned out. Aside from trying for another crack at a MEAC championship this year, she will complete her undergraduate studies and prepare for graduate school to work in vocational rehab. When considering how she would like to be remembered after she leaves college basketball behind, McCoy settled on “selfless.”
“I would like to be remembered as someone who did whatever it took for the team, whether that was just being somebody who could listen to any problem that any of my teammates were having on or off the court.”
As for Batchelor, he’ll hold off on considering how he’ll remember this player with whom he’s shared a rare mental bond since that Saturday afternoon at Peaky’s until after her final shot.
“Mariah McCoy is like a cowgirl: she’s always got bullets in her gun,” resolved Batchelor. “You don’t know when they’re going to go off, you don’t know when they’re going to connect, but she’s a kid that’s capable of playing big in the biggest moments.
“I’m optimistic that she’s going to save her best for last.”
McCoy and the Hawks continue their stretch run through the MEAC slate with a homecoming matchup against N.C. Central on Saturday. Tip time is set for 2 p.m. with Will DeBoer and David Byrd on the call for The Shore Sports Network on SFMSports.net.
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