Adjectives often associated with the word “freshman” include inexperienced, naive and awkward. None of these classifications, however, fit freshman guard Imani Watkins.
When Watkins, a 5-foot-8 North Carolina native, steps onto the hardwood for the Bearcats, her graceful ball-handling and intuitive play are more likely to be witnessed than any attributes of a typical first-year player.
The disparity between Watkins and ordinary freshmen has been a blessing, or perhaps a product of the needs of the team. Watkins has exploded in her debut season, averaging 13.4 points per game, which is second on her squad and 10th in the league. She and fellow freshman guard Jasmine Sina have formed a potent backcourt, combining to win the conference’s Rookie of the Week award eight times this season. Despite her early success, Watkins has not become complacent with her performance.
“Regardless of the accolades, you always want to see yourself get better,” Watkins said.
Never ceding defeat until the final buzzer has sounded, Binghamton has competed in every game this season. It is common to see players diving after loose balls and running hard in transition offense. As a starter, Watkins embodies this mentality and has reaped its benefits.
“We go hard in practice, so since we prepare that way, when you step out here, it’s just about execution,” Watkins said. “I think the amount of heart that this team has surmounts the score. That mentality is in the locker room. That mentality is in the media room when we’re watching film. That go-hard, hustle mentality is something that we all have.”
Due to BU’s lack of depth on the bench, Watkins has averaged 36.6 minutes per game and trails only Sina in time on the court. Although she has been integral to the squad this season, the toll of such a role is not lost on Watkins.
“I think that [starting and making important contributions] is every freshman’s dream, but you don’t realize what comes with that — the beating that you’re going to take night-in and night-out,” Watkins said. “You’re the face on everybody’s scouting report, so everybody’s attention is focused on you. That’s big.”
Watkins aims to never let her position in the spotlight affect the way she plays the game.
“You don’t focus on anything except what’s in front of you,” Watkins said. “Regardless of the score, regardless of who’s in the stands, regardless of the jerseys on the other team, you’ve just got to keep playing.”
It is this mindset that has allowed Watkins to persevere through a season that has seen the Bearcats fall to last place in the conference standings, accumulating just a 2-14 record in conference play and a 4-25 mark overall. Last weekend, Binghamton ended its regular season with its 13th loss in a row. Yet, as her team prepares for postseason play — into which it carries the last seed in the AE tournament — Watkins refuses to focus on anything but improvement.
“You’ve got to ignore the streak,” Watkins said. “If you paid me a million dollars right now, I probably couldn’t tell you what it is. I’m a basketball player, so even through adversity, I have to continue to be a basketball player. In the back of your mind, you know that better days are coming, so you’ve just got to keep your nose to the grindstone and just continue to do what you do.”
Those are wise words for a freshman with no collegiate postseason experience.
Watkins will log her first minutes of playoff action in Saturday’s quarterfinal game against top-seeded Maine. Heading into the matchup, she is focused on doing everything she can to give her team a fighting chance, but also on her goals for the future.
“I don’t want to be thought of as a one-hit wonder or someone who had a good freshman year and that was it,” Watkins said. “No. [Sina and I] want to continue to be prominent. We want to continue to be the targets on a team’s scouting report. I think that hunger and that drive is what’s going to push us to continue to succeed in the postseason and next year.”