It didn’t take long for Coppin State women’s basketball guard Aliyah Lawson to make a strong impression on new head coach Laura Harper.
The redshirt junior averaged 10.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game for the Eagles last year and is taking on a bigger role this season due to the graduation of Chance Graham, who led Coppin in scoring in 2019-20. But Harper, who took over a team that went 3-26 last year, is looking for something more as she works to rebuild the program.
“Aliyah Lawson is the heart and soul of Coppin State women’s basketball,” Harper said. “I didn’t even know her background when we first initially spoke. But as I started to get to know her, my respect for her just skyrocketed.”
Though Harper has a lot of work to do, Lawson represents a good foundation from which to build. The two connected almost immediately due to their similar basketball journeys; both refused to let injury after injury get in their way. Harper, who was the Most Outstanding Player of Maryland’s 2006 national championship team, has had eight knee surgeries and one on her Achilles tendon. Lawson had three knee surgeries before entering college.
For some, that could be a sign that their athletic career isn’t meant to be. Lawson decided to persevere.
“I just didn’t want my basketball career to end with an injury,” said Lawson, a native of Whitby, Ontario. “I didn’t want that to be the end of my story. I just felt like I still have so much to prove to myself and to my family and everyone who believed in me for so long that I can accomplish any dream that I set out for myself or any goal.”
After that injury-laden prep career — which took place mostly at Sinclair Secondary School in Ontario but ended at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. — Lawson went to Tallahassee Community College for two years. The 5-foot-7 guard sat out the first year while recovering from a knee injury and watched as her team won the National Junior College Athletic Association championship. The next year, Lawson was healthy and averaged 7.0 points a game for a 28-5 team. In those two years, she learned what a winning culture looked like. Now, Harper is looking for Lawson to provide that same example and set the tone for Coppin throughout the 2020-21 season.
“She’s always been a part of winning,” Harper said. “And what I’m trying to get our players to realize [is] that having a culture and attitude of winning doesn’t always mean that they’re winning. And that’s something that’s taken them a minute to really grasp but I think they’re getting it. But Aliyah gets it. She knows. She definitely knows.”
After two years at Tallahassee CC, Lawson transferred to Coppin and made an immediate impact. While she recognized the talent jump between the junior college and Division I levels, the bigger adjustment was honing her skills in the intricacies of the game.
“There’s a lot more learning in Division I basketball,” Lawson said. “Understanding the proper way to defend a ball screen, understanding that there’s so many different options out of various plays, just knowing and really learning the game of basketball inside and out.”
Coppin also struggled much more than Lawson’s teams at Tallahassee CC, losing the first 16 games of the 2019-20 season before finishing 3-26. Head coach DeWayne Burroughs was let go at season’s end, and Harper was hired as the next head coach in July. She hit the ground running by adding five new players in the first two months after she was hired.
Even with all the new additions, Lawson is the go-to player — and with that comes more responsibilities on and off the court. With Graham gone, Lawson will have to be more of a leader, especially with so many new players with no prior Division I experience. Typically more of a lead-by-example player than a vocal one, she’s still adjusting to her new role.
“She’s adapting into that role and understanding we need more of that from her,” Harper said. “My job is to not really change but just to try to show you can lead by example and you can still have a voice.”
On the court, Lawson wants to become a more efficient player in all areas, including scoring at a higher clip and setting up her teammates more often. Harper wants her to be better at finishing through contact and be more comfortable as the main scoring option. The coach has also given her the green light — something Lawson is uncomfortable with at times.
“She says, ‘I don’t want my teammates to think I’m doing too much,'” Harper said. “And I just say, ‘Who cares? You’re doing what the team needs to win.'”
Both are hoping Lawson can help be a bridge to a more successful era of Coppin State women’s basketball. The Eagles haven’t had a winning season since 2013-14 and haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008. A turnaround won’t happen overnight, but Lawson wants this year to be the start of something better.
“I’m just super excited to be a part of what should be a transformation of the culture,” Lawson said. “I think everyone on the team who experienced last year deserves to get a taste of what it feels like to win and to have that kind of a culture, a competitive culture.”
Originally published Dec. 16, 2020