VINELAND - Cumberland County College women's basketball coach James Boney asked Alicia Cox last summer what she wanted to do this season.
Cox said she wanted to win. She didn't care about statistics. She didn't care about earning an NCAA scholarship.
"When you're building a team, you need one player just to say that," Boney said last week.
Cox has gotten what she wanted - and more. The Dukes are off to an 18-1 start and appear to be contenders for a National Junior College Athletic Association Division III title, one year after going 2-25. Cox is among the nation's leaders in several statistical categories. And a scholarship could be next for the sophomore point guard.
Cox was the 2010-11 Press Player of the Year as a senior at Vineland High School. After a tough freshman year at Cumberland, she realized early this season that the Dukes could be really good.
It was mid-December. The Dukes were coming off their first loss, 62-61 to Passaic County Community College. They were on the road at Gloucester County College. Cox and standout forward Mackenzie Wimberg both had fouled out in a close game.
"I was on the bench, like, 'Oh, snap,' " Cox said. "I didn't know what was going to happen. I kind of thought we were going to lose. … They just played it out."
Cumberland pulled out a 62-60 victory, starting a win streak that is still going more than one month later.
The Dukes are deep, but Cox has been the key. The 21-year-old leads NJCAA Division III with 7.6 steals per game. She's fifth in assists with 5.5 per game and 11th with 18.9 points per game. She has been named Garden State Athletic Conference Player of the Week five times, including each of the past three, and NJCAA National Player of the Week once.
Cox's defense stands out. No one else in NJCAA Division III had more than 5.7 steals per game through Sunday.
"I just like to run, and I just like to go after the ball," Cox said. "I was taught to just go after it. It's not how you go after the ball, it's as long as you get it."
Wimberg, a freshman from Absegami, said sometimes she catches herself standing around watching Cox.
"She gets these sneaky steals," Wimberg said, "or she just comes up out of nowhere and just takes the ball from somebody and it's unexpected and everybody just sits there and she's already gone down the court."
The next step
Cox said she would like to earn an NCAA scholarship, but she hasn't thought much about particular schools yet. Boney said he gets emails and calls almost daily about her - and other players - and keeps a list to go over later.
Cox should have no shortage of suitors.
She's a triple-double threat every night. In addition to points, steals and assists, she leads the team with 8.1 rebounds per game. But her only triple-double so far came in the fourth game of the season, against Bergen Community College, when she had 20 points, 14 rebounds, 10 steals and eight assists.
"(Boney) messes up all the time," Cox said with a laugh. "He takes me out."
She said in one game she finished one assist short of a triple-double.
"Kyra (Lunsford, a teammate) let me have one of her assists, but they didn't put it down," Cox joked.
Cox likes to joke around. The whole team does - the players are all close off the court - and Boney said that's the key to the Dukes' success.
"Me and Chelsi Johnson (an assistant coach and Holy Spirit graduate), we talked about it on the way driving over here," Boney said. "Just how we relax. … If you watch us warm up before a game, it's like a sixth-grade team warming up. Honest. You'll see 12 airballs. But the one thing you'll always see is them smiling, them laughing, talking to each other and getting along."
Boney, a 36-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident, said that doesn't mean the team doesn't work hard. That was a question before the season, but Boney took care of it right away.
On the sixth day of practice, Boney noticed some laziness, so he kicked the entire team out of the gym.
"The response to that was them actually coming together after that," Boney said. "I told Chelsi it was going to be a situation early where it was me and her against them. And that day it was sort of like that, but ever since that day it was never me and her against them. We've been totally a team since that day."
Cox has plenty of help. Fellow guards Lunsford (Vineland) and Tess Elder (Sacred Heart) average 12.5 and 12.4 points, respectively. Wimberg averages 9.3.
"On different nights and different days, it's different players," Boney said. "Somebody new is always going to step up. It's always going to be two or three on different nights, and that's what makes us so good."
The result is that Cumberland's goals have changed. Coming into the season, Boney wanted to win Region IX, but now he's aiming higher.
"Now, we're thinking national," he said. "We're thinking Final Four, national championship."
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