Story by Bill Koch
May 1, 2020 (JWU MAGAZINE Spring 2020)
Tianna Ayulo '21 didn't have any other options. Committing to play women's basketball at Johnson & Wales in North Miami was it for the native of nearby Hollywood, Florida. The Wildcats were coming off a 3 –26 season that included just one victory after Christmas. JWU had missed the Sun Conference playoffs and was the only program seriously in pursuit of a 5-foot-9 forward who averaged a modest 8.5 points per game during her prep career at South Broward High.
Kymberly Hope saw some potential in Ayulo, and the Wildcats' coach wasn't exactly in position to reel in finished products. The more likely targets for the former University of Miami star and WNBA veteran were something closer to moldable clay. Ayulo and Hope took a chance on one another, the somewhat nontraditional marriage common on the recruiting trail.
That was the spring of 2017, and to say there have been significant changes in the three years that followed would be an understatement. Ayulo has blossomed into the first All-American in program history, earning an honorable mention selection from the Women's Basketball Coaches Association in 2018-19. JWU's rise included hosting its first postseason game on Feb. 26, a 73–61 Sun Conference tournament quarterfinal win over Florida's Ave Maria University.
"Conference coaches have congratulated me on how great a season we're having this year," says Hope. "They see the different caliber of student-athletes in the program. They see how the talent has changed from a couple years back."
The Wildcats finished 19-7 overall in the 2019-20 regular season, a 16-win improvement from that difficult 2016–17 campaign. Three of their losses came against top-10 NAIA teams like Southeastern University in Florida and Taylor University in Indiana. JWU has transformed from perennial struggler to carrying legitimate hopes of regularly reaching the NAIA Division II Championship Tournament.
"It was a different type of energy from last year," Ayulo says. "I felt like we put in the work as the preseason came along. Everybody got chemistry and came together."
The supporting cast has improved, but the Wildcats still leaned on the same leader. Ayulo's 17.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals per game were all tops on the team. Her 7.5 rebounds per game were second. She figures to add more postseason hardware to an impressive trophy case that also includes Sun Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2018.
"I was like, 'This kid could be something special here,' " Hope says. "I knew it was going to be a process and there were some areas where she had to grow and mature. I definitely think she's on that path. She's been phenomenal here."
Hope surrounded her centerpiece with 10 other Florida natives. Alexis McClain '21 was Ayulo's teammate at South Broward High and started all but two of 26 regular season games this season. Junior college transfer Chrystal Pressley '21 was recruited from Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth and twin freshman guards Shykim Gillion '23 and Shikal Gillion '23 hail from Delray Beach.
"I do have a lot of close connections within the local area," Hope says. "We have a lot of kids in our backyard who have proven to be successful for this program."
The Wildcats have also been able to poach a couple key recruits from outside the region. Senior forward Lexie Jackson '20 is a regular starter and a California native. Sophomore forward Jordan McDuffie '22 was a 1,000-point scorer at Maryland power McDonough High.
"Coach was always in my ear saying we were going to win, we were going to get people to help," Ayulo says. "She's been getting that help."
JWU's first real measuring stick this season came in its December encounter with The College of Coastal Georgia. The Mariners had captured all four meetings between the two programs since joining the conference prior to the 2017-18 season. The Wildcats overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to notch a 78-74 victory, holding Coastal Georgia to just 1-for-11 shooting from 3-point range.
"They were like, 'We just lost to Johnson & Wales,' " Ayulo says. "I could see it all over their faces. They were like, 'Johnson & Wales beat us.' "
That sort of defensive effort became the norm for JWU throughout the regular season, particularly on the perimeter. Opponents shot an icy 27.9 percent from 3-point range compared to 34.1 percent a season ago. The Wildcats allowed just 69.8 points per game, a noteworthy improvement from the 73.0 they conceded in 2018-19.
"We knew that we wanted to come in with a different dimension," Hope says. "We knew that we wanted to come in and really focus in on the defensive side. Starting in the preseason that's one thing we really emphasized – being a better defensive team."
Where does JWU go from here? The Wildcats are set to graduate just two seniors and return four starters for the 2020-21 season. Ayulo is one of several regulars who will help lead JWU in pursuit of what could be more historic achievements for the program.
"I know (Hope) wants every season to be better," Ayulo says. "Players each year want every season to be better. That's what we're striving for." "Now we have a product," Hope says.
"Now we have a program where people have been seeing we're successful. I've been here 11 years, and I knew it was going to be a process to get it going. But I also knew this location – it's a goldmine. We're right here in beautiful, sunny South Florida. We're close to Biscayne Bay. We have the perfect location, and now we have the product to put with a university that everybody wants to be a part of.
Follow women's basketball (@JWUWBBallNM) and all of JWU's 11 athletic teams on Twitter (@JWUAthleticsNM), YouTube (JWUAthletics), and Instagram (theWildcatWay).
About JWU Athletics: JWU Athletics is home to more than 150 student-athletes in 11 different sports. Established in 1998, JWU Athletics is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the Sun Conference. Athletic events are held the Wildcat Center and the Miami Shores Recreation Complex (9825 NE 7th Ave., Miami Shores, FL 33138).
About JWU: Founded in 1914, Johnson & Wales University is a private, nonprofit, accredited institution with approximately 13,000 graduate, undergraduate and online students at its four campuses in Providence, Rhode Island; North Miami, Florida; Denver, Colorado; and Charlotte, North Carolina. An innovative educational leader, the university offers degree programs in arts and sciences, business, culinary arts, design and engineering, education, health and wellness, hospitality, nutrition and physician assistant studies. Its unique model integrates arts and sciences and industry-focused education with work experience and leadership opportunities, inspiring students to achieve professional success and lifelong personal and intellectual growth. The university's impact is global, with alumni from 125 countries pursuing careers worldwide. For more information, visit jwu.edu.
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