More female college basketball players are feeling comfortable above the rim

Fran Belibi joined an exclusive club when she participated in the NCAA Tournament last season.

While she was only the third woman to do so in the tournament and eighth overall in college history, the Stanford forward knows there will soon be more.

“There are definitely more girls who can play above the edge,” Belibi said.

Her historic dunk capped off a great basketball game where she had a block on one end, then finished it with the one-handed slam. Belibi, who dived three times in college, knows there are others already in college who can do it but may not want to because they are afraid of missing out.

“They just don’t try to do it. I think by doing it and seeing other dunks in the NBA, a lot more people are like they can do it, let me try it,” she said. “Making it in a game depends on your athletic ability and game time and score.”

Belibi is well aware of the history of dunks in women’s college basketball, citing Georgeann Wells as the first to do so in a game. Elon’s coach Charlotte Smith was the second to look back when she played for North Carolina.

Smith recalled that three of his Tar Heels teammates, including former track star Marion Jones, could also dunk. The quartet of players lined up behind each other before games and put on a show that intimidated fans and opponents alike.

“We would literally line up back to back,” the 6ft Smith recalled. “We would dunk four times in a row. It was exciting for us and exciting for our opponents, who stopped their warm-ups to watch us dunk.

There have only been eight players who have dived in a college game. Joining Wells, Smith and Belibi are Michelle Snow, Sancho Lyttle, Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner, who holds the record with 18 of nearly three dozen college dunks that have occurred.

This number should soon increase. Dawn Staley has her own dunk in freshman Ashlyn Watkins, who won the high school dunk contest last spring.

“We’re going to see it a lot more,” the South Carolina coach said. “Ashlyn is an incredible athlete. It doesn’t take much for him to dive into one of our exercises. It’s nothing for her to do. I think she will do it in a not necessarily fast game. She can do it in a kind of crowd.

Staley said two of his other players can dunk as well, although they haven’t done so in a match yet. She said she sees a lot of high school players at AAU tournaments in the summer playing above the edge. Staley knows dunks definitely add excitement to the game and help it grow, but that’s not why most fans tune in to watch the women play.

Watkins is shy and quiet when talking about his ability to dive. She credits the strength and conditioning coaches at Gamecocks for helping her get stronger so she can perform above the edge.

“They came in handy,” said Watkins, who remembers dunking on a nine-foot rim in fifth grade and a 10-footer in eighth. “Making my quads, calves and glutes stronger so I can still stand up when I’m tired.”

Watkins said she thought about diving into the Gamecocks exhibition match last week but saw two girls approaching her and didn’t want to risk injury in the match.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves had his own pair of potential dunkers in Phillipina Kyei and Sedonna Prince. Prince’s college career is over after suffering an elbow injury. The 6-foot-8 Kyei, who hails from Canada, easily enjoys training.

“We were one of the few schools that could have a practice dunk contest,” Graves said with a laugh. “There are definitely a lot more players who can do it now than when I started coaching. They are bigger and stronger and can jump higher.

Smith hopes to see more women doing it soon and she will be happy to welcome them to the group.

“It’s really exciting to have been one of the founders of the dunk club,” Smith said. “We’ll have to get t-shirts made and give them to everyone who makes it.”

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