College basketball: Wilkerson moves up to D-2

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 29, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Hannah Wilkerson is always looking for the next challenge, and she’s found it.

She’s moving up from NAIA basketball to Division II.

Wilkerson, the No. 3 scorer in North Rowan girls basketball history with 1,589 points, was expected to hold on her own in NAIA basketball as a freshman at Columbia International University, but she exceeded all expectations.

She wasn’t just OK. She excelled.

She was the team’s leading scorer with 15.8 points per game, shot solid percentages, made the All-Freshman team for the Appalachian Athletic Conference and was the first in program history to make first team all-conference.

Columbia International competes on two levels, in a standard NAIA conference but also as a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association. Wilkerson led a Columbia International run in the NCCAA playoffs, and helped the program finish with a record 18 wins.

“The freshman season I had was unexpected,” Wilkerson said. “They had recruited a very big freshman class that included girls who had won state championships and girls who were 2,000-point scorers. I know I wasn’t supposed to be a starter and I was the sixth man for a while, but once I did get a chance to start, I showed that I should be in there.”

Wilkerson is 5-foot-8, not a blazer and not a leaper, just a very steady and smart basketball player who is versatile. She can play forward or guard about equally well, she can guard multiple positions and she can shoot. She shot 34 percent from 3 and 77 percent from the free-throw line, and those are numbers you can win with. She also came down with 5 rebounds per game.

“My role for CIU was a lot like it was at North Rowan, playing different roles, whatever the team needed that night,” Wilkerson said. “I played in the post some, especially early in the season when we had some big girls hurt. As we got healthier, I played more as a wing.”

A few months after Columbia International’s exciting season was in the books, head coach Danielle Fleming broke the news to the team that she was leaving to take the head job at Division II Clarion University, a member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

“It was shocking at first when she told us, heartbreaking, really, but then she let me know that she wanted me to play for her at Clarion and that they needed me,” Wilkerson said. “I think, honestly, that Division II is the level I need to be playing at, so that’s going to be the next step for me. It’s a step up for sure, and I understand that, but I’ll be ready for it.”

Fleming got the job very late in the recruiting process and is taking over a program that won only five games last season. So there’s a good chance that Wilkerson can supply some immediate help.

“The hard part is leaving Columbia International because that’s the school that believed in me, the school that recruited me, and the school that gave me a chance,” Wilkerson said. “I loved my time there. They cared about me as a person and not just a basketball player. I found that out as I made that transition from high school classes to college work. Columbia International made sure you stayed on top of things academically and  I learned how to manage my time and do well in school while playing basketball.”

Moving to western Pennsylvania will mean leaving her comfort zone, but Wilkerson is a mature 19-year-old and is excited about it, rather than worried. There will be fewer hugs after games, but a long-distance support system still will be there.

“My family is huge for me and I realize it’s going to be a change for them with me playing in Pennsylvania,” Wilkerson said. “But they can watch the games on the computer and Clarion is only an hour plane flight from Charlotte, so they’ll still be able to come see some games in person.”

Wilkerson is home until August, but she’s not doing much hanging out and relaxing. Most days, she’s working out, lifting and getting shots up.

“Clarion is a huge opportunity for me,” she said. “If you want to keep growing as a basketball player and as a person, you have to keep challenging yourself.”