|Tate Walters returns and Pierre Curtis debuts as head coach when the Furman|
women's basketball team opens the season Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Tate Walters could've never imagined that a torn ACL that cost her the entire 2022-23 women's basketball season also meant she'd played her final game for Jackie Carson. Fortunately for all parties involved, Furman's pick to replace Carson was also Walters' choice.
Walters makes her long-awaited return to the court Tuesday night under her former position coach and now head coach Pierre Curtis. The Curtis era begins when the Paladins open the season by hosting UNC Asheville at 7 p.m.
Curtis became the eighth head coach in Furman women's basketball history on June 9, the day after Carson left to become the Atlantic Coast Conference's Senior Associate Commissioner for Women’s Basketball. After a legendary playing career, Carson was head coach at her alma mater for 13 seasons before leaving. Curtis was on her staff for the past 10 years and served as associate head coach since 2019.
"It's been a wild ride getting used to being one seat over," Curtis said. "But I've been preparing for this for at least the past four years, just learning from Jackie and other coaches I respect.
"I'm blessed that it worked out for me, but that's kind of why I stayed loyal to the program for 10 years. There were opportunities to move on elsewhere, but this is what I wanted."
Walters is excited to return to the court and to do it under the guidance of the coach who recruited her.
"Furman is all about family. There was a coaching change, but we kept it in the family," Walters said. "Coach Carson was the top dog, but Coach P has been right there by her side and been a head coach-ish figure already for me. I'm so psyched for him to take over."
Walters, a redshirt junior guard, is a preseason All-Southern Conference selection after having a big season two years ago. She averaged 12.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while piling up a SoCon-best 137 assists. She also ranked second in the league in three-point shooting at 37.3 percent.
Where Walters really shined that season was at the SoCon Tournament in Asheville. In Furman's tournament opener, it trailed Chattanooga by 14 in the first half and 60-56 with just over one minute to play. At that point, Walters took her game to a whole other level and just willed the Paladins to an overtime victory. You can read my recap of that amazing performance here: http://www.furmansportsreport.com/2022/03/furman-women-rally-survive-and-advance.html
"Having her back has made this an easier transition for sure. She's a natural leader," Curtis said. "The first day was even cleared to go half-court, she was the best player on the court."
Furman must replace leading scorer Grace van Rij, who averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds a game last season. It does have five players with starting experience returning, including Walters and sophomore guard Niveya Henley. Like Walters, Henley also was out all of last season with an injury after making the SoCon All-Freshman team two years ago.
Other returning starters are sophomore guard Jaelyn Acker, who averaged 11.4 points per game last season, senior wing Sydney James and junior forward Jada Session. James and Session were mirror images stat-wise last season, as each averaged 8.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
"We're an older team, which a lot of people don't realize," Curtis said. "They're learning a little bit of a new style of play, but it's exciting. They're having fun and their energy is great.
"It's been great to have Tate back, but at the same time having Niveya back is big. We have a healthy Sydney James, who played hurt all last year. I feel like I have a way better Jade Session. I think we're going to surprise some people."
Coming off an 11-19 season, Furman was picked fifth (coaches) and seventh (media), respectively, in the preseason SoCon polls. After helping the Paladins reach the SoCon Tournament championship game in 2022, Walters has her sights for the Paladins set higher than the polls.
"A big key for us will be staying healthy, which is always a battle, and just making sure we stay tight knit with a good chemistry," Walters said. "If we're healthy and play as one unit, I think we're going to be really hard to stop."