GCSHOF 2022: Basketball is life for former Huss standout who battled early adversity and has thrived in the sport

By Richard Walker

When Nicole Woods first started playing basketball, she had hopes of playing professionally.

Woods did so but her greatest impact on basketball has been in coaching the sport she has loved despite career-threatening injuries as a high school freshman and sophomore player.

Nicole Woods

Now in her late 30s, when Woods reflects on her induction into the 2022 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame, she is overcome with joy.

“I think I’m still in a little bit of disbelief about it,” said Woods, now completing her ninth season as Charlotte 49ers assistant women’s basketball coach. “It’s just an awesome honor.”

And an honor Woods admits she questioned even having the opportunity to achieve after undergoing two major knee surgeries that limited her first two years of high school basketball to one actual game on the court.

Yet, in many ways, the adversity led Woods to moments of reflection that both enhanced the rest of her playing career while also helping her in her coaching career.

“It’s amazing how things can change in your life,” said Woods, a 2002 Hunter Huss High School and 2006 Belmont Abbey College graduate. “Before I got to high school, I thought I was going to play in the pros. A lot changed when I got hurt my first two years.
“But it also made me realize how much I loved basketball.”

A pickup game the day before high school practice began in her freshman year at Huss on Nov. 1, 1998, began creating her career.

“We were going to have a little pickup game on Sunday afternoon to get ready for tryouts the next day,” Woods said. “And I got a piece of a shot and I kind of turned and I’ll never forget hearing the sound of a rubber band popping in my right knee – and I was in the worst pain of my life.
“But I worked my tail off to get ready to play again and made it through tryouts my sophomore year and then we’re playing at South Meck. I was having a really good game and the next thing you know, a girl kneed me and it was the other knee.”

How much was Woods questioned about her career goal at that point?

“I’ll never forget my late grandmother, Mildred Cooper, asking me, ‘Don’t you want to just knit the quilt with me? You don’t have to play this game that’s causing you so much pain,'” Woods remembers. “But I wanted to play. Ironically, I never got hurt again after those two ACLs.”

Woods also remembers the time away from basketball due to injury rehabilitation also taught her lessons about patience that she uses to this day.

“It made me a realist,” said Woods, who went on to earn All-Gazette honors at Huss. “When I had a chance to play in college, I wanted to go somewhere where I could play. I had been the water girl for two years at Huss. So I wanted to play.
“I ended up choosing Belmont Abbey because it was the best place for me. It’s something I tell the kids now when I recruit. I say, ‘You need to go somewhere where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.’ And Belmont Abbey was on me from Day One.”

Nicole Woods starred at Belmont Abbey College enough to have her No. 21 jersey honored by the school.

Woods chose Belmont Abbey despite receiving a preferred walkon offer from Huss graduate and 2005 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee Sylvia Rhyne Hatchell at the University of North Carolina.

And her college choice was aided by her own confidence in own ability that showed during a chance meeting the summer before her senior year at Huss.

“I remember at the State Games up in Raleigh and we’re sitting there getting ready to play and I was telling this lady, ‘You should stick around and watch us play this game,'” Woods said. “And we were down 16 in the third quarter and came back and won.
“Next thing I know I’m getting mail from Belmont Abbey. I’m like, ‘I’m not going to Belmont Abbey, it’s right down the road.’ What I didn’t realize was that Missy Tiber was the lady I was talking to before that game and she was head coach at Belmont Abbey.”

But even going to the Abbey wasn’t all smooth sailing for Woods.

Not only was Woods being added to a veteran team, she was – by her own admission – not prepared for the increase in work ethic she had to have to progress from high school standout to college standout.

Woods says that’s the reason she was a little-used reserve who averaged 2.6 points per game as a freshman who played in 25 of her team’s 28 games in the 2002-03 season.

“That first year at Belmont Abbey was one of the worst years of my life,” Woods said. “I hadn’t worked out that summer and thought I’d come to school and play right away. But I learned. At that time, I was naive and a tad lazy and had the attitude that I was doing them a favor by coming to Belmont Abbey.
“That attitude is the reason why I never give up on kids I recruit now because Lord knows coach Tiber should’ve given up on me.”

Running five days a week with Tiber and Abbey assistant coach Adrienne Harlow – both of whom who had marathon running experience – helped improve Woods’ conditioning. So did changing her diet.

But the biggest change came when a teammate got injured early in her junior year.

“Our point guard Kychelle Collins (from Bessemer City) had gotten a concussion and was out for a game,” Woods said. “And coach Tiber looks at me and says, ‘Alright Woods, you’re starting at the point.'”

Though she’d never played point guard previously at any other level, Woods had 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on that Jan. 6, 2005 night against Erskine for the school’s first and so far only triple-double in history.

She also finished the season averaging 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 8.1 assists to earn all-conference honors for a 22-8 team. And her assist average ranked her fourth in the nation in NCAA Division II women’s basketball.

The next season, Tiber left for another head coaching job, and Woods had to change her playing style again for new coach Katie Pate.

Pushed by Pate to score more, Woods averaged 24.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists to earn conference player of the year honors.

“At the end of the day, choosing Belmont Abbey College was the best decision I’ve ever made other than giving my life to Christ,” said Woods, whose No. 21 Crusaders’ jersey was honored by the school in December 2013. “It was exactly what I needed on the court and off the court.”

After a year working for local businessman Doug Smith while also working as an assistant coach for Jan Wiggins at Huss, Woods would play one year professionally for the Nottingham Wildcats in the English professional women’s basketball league before deciding coaching would be her career path.

Even that took an unexpected turn based on her past.

Tiber had been hired at NCAA Division I Southern Illinois and was seeking a graduate assistant and knew Woods was working with youth basketball.

“Missy Tiber tricked me,” Woods says now with a chuckle. “When I came back from playing overseas, I was running a boys and girls club at (Charlotte’s) Quail Hollow Middle School.
“Missy heard that I was going to grad school and she had just got hired at SIU-Carbondale. She said, ‘I just got this job, I need a grad assistant and I want somebody who knows my system. I’ll get you a free degree and if you still want to coach, I’ll help or you can go on about your way.’
“I was thinking I would be there two years and go back to the boys and girls club. I think she knew that if I got into coaching and saw how I could help these young women, that I would want to stay in coaching. And she was right.”

After Southern Illinois, Woods worked as an assistant coach at Stetson before her mother, Karen Cooper, had a heart scare in 2013.

“There ain’t nothing like your mom getting sick to be put things in perspective and I wanted to come back to the area,” Woods said. “Luckily for me, my boss now, (Charlotte 49ers’ head coach) Cara Consuegra, was looking for people with local ties. And when she asked around, she got my name. I didn’t even tell my mom and I flew in, interviewed for the job and the next day she called and offered me the job.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a decade.”

With Charlotte, Woods has helped recruit and develop players for Consuegra’s program that has become the winningest in school history as well as make the most postseason appearances.

Nicole Woods and the Charlotte 49ers celebrate the 2022 Conference USA championship.

This season, the 49ers also became only the second conference tournament champion in school history and third team to make the NCAA tournament. Charlotte finished with a 22-10 overall record after losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Indiana.

“I am one of the few assistant coaches that has no desire to be a head coach at all,” Woods said. “For me, the reason I coach is for the players. And when you’re the head coach, there’s just so many other things that you have to deal other than the team that you’re there to deal with.
“So I never want to do anything that will take me away from my relationship with the players. I tell Cara all the time that my job is to make us conference champs, go to the NCAA tournament and make her coach of the year.”