The Charlotte 49ers’ women head into their final two regular-season games looking to secure a high seed in next week’s Conference USA basketball tournament.
Luckily for Charlotte (17-10, 10-6), freshman Grace Hunter is playing her best ball of the season and the 49ers are on a roll, winning seven of their past nine games.
Hunter, a 5-foot-9 guard from Raleigh, has been C-USA Freshman of the Week four times this season. Coach Cara Consuegra says Hunter’s work ethic has made an impact.
“The energy she brings every day to practice … that’s affected our team in a positive way,” said Consuegra, in her fifth season as 49ers coach. “But the other thing about Grace is that she’s extremely coachable. She wants to be good.
“She’s a very confident player, and really believes she can help this team and be an impact player for us, but she’s not so confident that she won’t take instruction. “
Much like her skills, Hunter’s statistics have steadily improved.
While her season averages are 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, Hunter’s numbers in conference play are even better.
In C-USA games, she’s averaging 14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds – both second-best among the league’s freshmen – and her field goal percentage (53.9 percent) is second-best among all players.
Hunter’s rebounding numbers are especially surprising, considering she’s often 4-6 inches shorter than opposing players.
“I just have the will to get the ball,” Hunter said. “I’m not going to let my height or anything stop me from jumping up there and getting it.”
Said Consuegra: “She plays big. She’s so strong and physical and athletic. But her secret is her tenacity. She can outjump a lot of people.
“When that ball goes up, Grace thinks it’s hers, no matter what. She just has a real hunger to be a rebounder.”
Hunter was first noticed by Consuegra and the 49ers’ staff when she was a sophomore at Raleigh’s Athens Drive High, where 30-point games were the norm.
“A lot of (colleges) showed interest at the beginning,” Hunter said. “But it kinda faded out when they saw my grades weren’t as good as they needed to be. But Coach Cara was the only one who had faith in me.”
That faith was rewarded when Hunter eventually turned down an offer from South Carolina – the nation’s No. 2 team last season – to stick with her commitment to the 49ers.
“They were going to be my second official visit, but I wound up not taking it,” Hunter said of the Gamecocks.
Again, a good thing for Charlotte, which has two home games left before next week’s conference tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
The 49ers are fourth in the C-USA standings, a game ahead of Louisiana Tech and two games up on Old Dominion. They should be favored against Rice (8-19, 7-9) on Thursday and North Texas (10-16, 5-11) on Saturday.
And while winning C-USA Freshman of the Year would be satisfying, Hunter said she’d gladly trade it for the conference tournament championship trophy.
“I want the team to win,” Hunter said. “I hate losing.”