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Jada Payne took a circuitous route to East Carolina – from Hickory up to
Philadelphia, then back down to Greenville – but when she finally
settled in as a Pirate she knew which number she wanted to wear – 23 as
a tribute to the legendary Michael Jordan.
Unbeknownst to Payne, the number 23 means even more to the Pirate
nation, as a symbol of the courage, character and leadership exemplified by
the late ECU baseball coach Keith LeClair. The jersey number seems to be
pointing to success at several levels for the redshirt sophomore who has
sprinted out front as the top scorer and one of the floor leaders for the
undefeated women’s basketball team.
When the Lady Pirates lost their three leading scorers from a team that
went 22-10 and earned a bid to the WNIT, fans waited to see who would step
up to provide the spark for the program that has developed a reputation for
staying perennially competitive. Several players – Abria Trice, Kristine
Mial, Shae Nelson – picked up that mantle, but none so determinedly as
Take last weekend’s Thanksgiving Tournament, which ECU hosted with
visiting teams IUPUI (Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis) and Cleveland State. In a
71-51 victory over IUPUI, Payne led the team in both scoring and rebounding,
with 18 points and seven boards. She followed that performance in dramatic
fashion – scoring a career-high 33 points Sunday in a 75-66 win over
Cleveland State that put the Pirates at 7-0 for only the third time in
Payne was named tournament MVP for her efforts, and with those seven
wins behind her she was averaging 20.6 points a game, including 21-of-38
from behind the three-point arc for 55 percent accuracy on three-pointers.
With Trice, the team’s second-leading scorer with 16.1 points a game,
playing opposite her, Payne is helping create a frustrating situation for
opposing defenses, said head coach Heather Macy.
“With Abria on the other wing, they’re going to have a hard time doing
double teaming, because we’ve got so many extra threats on every part of the
floor,” said Macy, who was named Conference USA Coach of the Year last
“Everybody can make big plays, so it makes us really hard to guard as a
team,” Payne said.
Growing up in Hickory, Payne was a dancer for a while, but when she had
to choose between hoops and the dance studio basketball won out. Her mother,
Amanda Forney, played basketball collegiately at Lees-McRae and West
Virginia Tech, so her love of the game came naturally.
Even though she was a promising player,
Payne didn’t play enough at the AAU level to receive much recruiting
attention when she graduated from Hickory High School in 2011. She signed
with La Salle because she liked the program and the coaching staff, and she
thrived there, making the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team and earning the
program’s Rookie of the Year award.
But Payne discovered that she wasn’t a big
city girl, and she missed her family, so last fall Payne left the bustle of
Philadelphia behind for Greenville.
Payne was ineligible to compete last season
because of NCAA transfer requirements, but Macy knew from watching her new
player in a practice setting that Jada Payne would soon be a name Pirate
fans would want to know.
“Coaching her a year ago, in every
practice, we understood and knew where she was going to be, but she’s also
gotten stronger,” Macy said. “I think her game has continued to grow and get
better. I think her mental development and her understanding of how we pay
has allowed her to transition and make an immediate impact.”
Payne made an immediate connection with the
players and coaches at ECU, she said, and she was impressed with the
collective work ethic and commitment to excellence in the program. She and
her teammates still have plenty to learn, because most of them are fairly
new to the Pirates, but she sees positive change every time they take the
“We’re still learning the system and
learning how to work together in that system, but we always play hard, and
we’re really starting to mesh together,” she said. “I can see growth every
day as we practice together and we learn how to play together.”
Macy is too wise to rest on any laurels
with only seven games in the books, but the explosive start has been an
excellent confidence builder for players like Payne, she said. When they
return to competition after finals on December 12, and especially in a
crucial home game against Ohio on December 20, Macy hopes that fans will
show up to see a promising work in progress.
“I’m just really, really excited for the
girls to have started the season so well, and we’re really not even close to
playing our best basketball,” she said. “We’re still growing and we’re still
developing, but Jada has been a huge part of it.”