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North Charleston senior women's hoops team to make history at national tournament

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Wendy Anderson, Lisa Lambeth, Gail Engle, Marsha Long and Michele Brusseau (from left) play a qualifying match for the National Senior Games at the North Charleston Athletic Center on May 26, 2021. The North Charleston Senior Women Athletic Group, with ages from 50 to 71, will be the first women’s basketball team from South Carolina to participate in the National Senior Games. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

NORTH CHARLESTON — Athletic performance declines as people get older, but the drive for competition and health benefits doesn't have to. 

That's certainly the case for a group of Lowcountry senior basketball players who aren't as quick, strong and physically fit as they were when playing basketball in high school or college. But that hasn't stopped these women from being lifelong hoopsters. 

The North Charleston Senior Women Athletic Group, whose ages run between 50 and 71, is prepping to make history at a national athletic competition, hoping also to inspire others to live active and healthy lifestyles. The team will soon be the first senior women basketballers to represent South Carolina at the National Senior Games.

Team SWAG will play in 3-on-3 competitions in 2022 in Fort Lauderdale.

The nine-player North Charleston team includes a handful of hall-of-fame college athletes and others who enjoy the sport. In between family life and professional careers, they are pursuing their recreational passions.

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Lisa Lambeth plays with the North Charleston Senior Women Athletic Group at the North Charleston Athletic Center on May 26, 2021. The team starts at age 50, with the eldest member 71. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Wendy Anderson, 53, played one year of basketball and four years of volleyball at Clemson University. The North Charleston team shows it's possible for adults their age to compete at a high level, she said.

"It's a great feeling," Anderson said. "It makes you appreciate the days when you were a Division I athlete."

Longtime basketball fan Gail Engle led efforts to form the group in 2019 before COVID-19 halted the team's scrimmages. Players have since resumed weekly matches at the city's athletic center.

SWAG team members recently competed among themselves in a 3-on-3 game sanctioned by the South Carolina Senior Sports Classic to serve as the qualifying match for next year's national tournament. 

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Teammates Marsha Long (left) and Kelli Garrett bump fists as Mayor Keith Summey calls the winner of the coin toss as they get ready to play a qualifying match at the North Charleston Athletic Center on May 26, 2021. The North Charleston Senior Women Athletic Group, with ages from 50 to 71, will be the first women’s basketball team from South Carolina to participate in the National Senior Games. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The high-energy, competitive match took place at the North Charleston Athletic Center and featured over a dozen onlookers watching from the bleachers.

The half-court game had a final score of 47-39 and was competitive throughout. Flashy passes, pick-and-roll plays, three-pointers and mid-range jumpers served as proof the women haven't lost their basketball touch over the years.

The game reminded some of the players of old times.

Teresa Tincher, a 1988 graduate of the College of Charleston who played basketball and volleyball, competed May 26 alongside her former teammate, hall-of-famer Kelli Garrett.

"It gives me chill bumps," Tincher said. 

Mayor Keith Summey, who conducted the coin toss at the game, pointed out his own ties to the sport. He noted he once coached recreational basketball at a local church. 

The mayor said the women are setting an example for the next generation.

"It's encouraging more young women to play basketball," Summey said.

Having South Carolina women represented at the National Senior Games will be a landmark moment for the Palmetto State, said Debbie Wall, a board member for the South Carolina Senior Sports Classic.

The hope is North Charleston will be the first of many other senior women's basketball teams to form locally and throughout South Carolina.

"That's what we're trying to get started," Wall said.

The state's senior games date back to 1985 and participation has since grown. This year's statewide competition included more than 500 athletes in 25 different sports.

The goal is also to encourage people to be active.

"We want people to have a healthy lifestyle as long as they're around," Wall said.

Anderson, a breast cancer survivor, said she particularly encourages African Americans to go to the doctor. Black people should also not be afraid to talk about cancer, a disease that Anderson said was not as openly discussed when she was younger.

"Growing up, you couldn't say 'cancer,'" said Anderson, who noted the diseases was often referred as the "c-word."

Some of the female athletes have an opportunity to compete in a sport they couldn't play collegiately prior to the 1972 Title IX law, which prohibited sex-based discrimination, Engle said.

But for those who played school ball, being able to still hoop at a high level is unexpected.

Holly Stilley, 60, a College of Charleston hall of famer who led the team to three national championships, played ball briefly after graduating school. But she stopped, fearing she'd get injured.

"I was always scared," Stilley said.

The athlete is glad she joined the group, in part because of the comradery it provides. Team members also hang out off the court. 

"We just have a good time," Stilley said.

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Kelli Garrett, Teresa Tincher and Michele Brusseau (from left) are part of the North Charleston Senior Women Athletic Group, called SWAG, playing at the North Charleston Athletic Center on May 26, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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