Former Towson women’s basketball star Nukiya Mayo can add another accomplishment to her ledger after signing a one-year contract July 14 to play professional basketball for PAOK Thessaloniki in Greece’s top women’s basketball league during the 2020-21 season.
Mayo is planning to report to Greece Sept. 1.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Mayo said. “It’s nice to know that I get to play at the next level.”
The signing was the culmination of hard work at Towson following a freshman season (2016-17) during which Mayo made just two starts. When head coach Diane Richardson first arrived on campus ahead of the 2017-18 season, she told her new players that though the team had typically been powered by its guard play, she wanted everyone to have a chance to score and find new roles.
The 6-foot-3 Mayo fully bought into the new regime and culture, making strides and improving throughout her final three years with the Tigers. She gained confidence as her weaknesses became strengths, and that incremental development gave Richardson the belief Mayo had a chance to not only be a leader at Towson but play professionally, too.
“I knew she had it in her,” Richardson said. “I’ve coached some kids like her before and I knew what we would put into [her] with our staff in terms of skill development. If she listened, she would get there. And she embraced it.”
A productive summer ahead of the 2017-18 season helped Mayo average 12.9 points per game and 9.1 rebounds and earn All-CAA third-team honors. Still, the Tigers finished just 9-21.
Towson was predicted to finish toward the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association standings in 2018-19, but the Tigers, led by Mayo, Kionna Jeter and Qierra Murray, went 20-13. Mayo took another step forward that season, scoring 14.3 points per game and earning CAA second-team and CAA All-Defensive team honors.
Towson earned the No. 4 seed in the CAA tournament. The Tigers made a postseason run behind Mayo, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the CAA tournament after posting 20 points and seven rebounds in the championship game against Drexel. Towson’s CAA title resulted in the program’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Her senior season brought on even more success when she became the first Tiger under Richardson to break the 1,000-career-point barrier against Iowa at the Puerto Rico Classic. She climbed the program’s career leaderboards as the season progressed, finishing in the top 10 in several categories, including games played (114), points (1,372), rebounds (776) and blocked shots (133).
“It meant a lot,” Mayo said recounting her Towson days. “I got to accomplish lots of things and it really prepared me for the next level.”
“She’s in the record book in several categories,” Richardson said with a laugh. “[Mayo] is one of many people that said, ‘I’ve got to buckle down and do what I need to do to get where I want to go,’ and she did that. I think that legacy itself — that work ethic, that pride in being a Towson Tiger — is tremendous.”
Mayo, who averaged 16.1 points and 7.7 rebounds as a senior, ended the regular season by becoming the first Tiger to receive All-CAA honors at least three seasons in a row in program history. But before Towson had the chance to officially defend its CAA title, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the conference tournament.
Despite an up-and-down season — the Tigers finished 14-15 overall and 9-9 in the CAA – they were confident in their chances to repeat, Mayo said. When the tournament was canceled, the team experienced the full gamut of emotions. Mayo described it as a shock that the postseason was canceled, but the Tigers were fully aware that things would possibly fall off the rails.
“They were really heartbroken,” Richardson said. “That was probably one of the hardest conversations I’ve had as a coach — to tell them that the season [had] ended, just telling the whole team we’re not going to play, that it’s abruptly stopped and we wouldn’t have a chance defend our title. It was a letdown for them.”
“I knew there were some WNBA scouts coming to our games specifically to watch them. And that was sort of out the window for them,” Richardson added.
With her season cut short sooner than expected, Mayo soon signed with an agency to explore her professional options. While her agents worked to find her an opportunity, Mayo ran 2 miles every day and worked out at public parks back home in New York City since the pandemic prevented access into indoor gyms. As far as the development of her game is concerned, Mayo said she has been working on improving her mid-range game and finishing with her left hand.
As the days turned into months, Mayo was surprised at how quickly the process went once her agents put feelers out about her professional prospects. Before Mayo signed with PAOK, there were three other teams recruiting her. Mayo never even gave thought to look for a regular job. She always expected to play professionally.
“I don’t mind either one,” Mayo said regarding playing overseas or in the U.S., “but it would cool to play in the WNBA.”
Since signing on the dotted line, Mayo is most looking forward to learning a new system while maintaining the same style that helped her become so successful at the collegiate level. Mayo has yet to forge any new relationships with her future teammates so she isn’t aware of any places to eat or hang out yet. She’s still excited to travel to another part of the world.
“Just getting to go across the country and site see and experience something new,” Mayo said when thinking about the next step in her life. “I’ll miss American food the most!”
PAOK Thessaloniki (8-12) finished seventh in Greece’s A1 standings in 2019-20. That squad is getting a versatile and determined player, according to Richardson. Mayo showed what current and future players can accomplish if they buy in early to Towson’s culture and player development style, the coach explained.
“[Mayo] obviously is a product of what Towson University women’s basketball is all about,” Richardson said. “That opportunity is open for so many other people and we’ll continue to push our program to be one of the elite programs.”
Photo Credit: Steve McLaughlin