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Rita Wiggs Made Hoops History | By Thad Mumau

Long before Shea Ralph, there was Rita Wiggs.

Ralph was the North Carolina high school basketball girls’ player of the year as a Terry Sanford senior in 1996. She went on to star at the University of Connecticut, helping the Huskies win a national championship. People around here thought she was the greatest female hoops player they had ever seen.

Wiggs made history in 1971 when she was named to the Fayetteville Observer’s City-County Basketball Team. No, not the girls’ team. There was not even one of those selected back then. The Cape Fear High School sensation was chosen to what had previously been an all-boys’ local all-star team.

In fact, Wiggs was named the Most Outstanding Player on the 10-member team that also included Hope Mills High’s Sonny Davis, Cleo Dawson and Neil Leslie of Cape Fear, E.E. Smith’s Joe Harris and Darrnell Pressley, Marshall Lovett of Seventy-First, Massey Hill’s Greg Melton, Bruce Monroe of Pine Forest and Terry Sanford’s Bob Ringer. As a result of Wiggs’ accomplishments on the hardwood and her historic City-County honor, she was recognized by Sports Illustrated magazine as one of its Faces in the Crowd. People around here thought she was the greatest female hoops player they had ever seen.

She averaged 23.2 points per game, slashing to the basket through defenses geared to stop her, leaping over taller players to stick back offensive rebounds and swishing long bombs from the perimeter with one of the prettiest jump shots I’ve seen – from a male or female. She had three-point range, but there were no three-point baskets back then. Standing 5 foot, 8 inches, she played much taller because of her ability to get off the floor. She had hops before the phrase was created, and she possessed tremendous quickness to go with exceptional ball handling.

In those days, big-time women’s college hoops had not yet happened. Not enough money or attention was paid to put the sport in the spotlight. Today, Wiggs would be recruited by droves of Division I coaches and perhaps have the opportunity to play for a national title. Then, there was neither a Division I nor a national title for women. Rita, though, made her mark. She was a four-year starter at UNC Greensboro and led all college women scorers in North Carolina in 1975 when she averaged 21.2 points per game as a senior. Amazingly, she also pulled down 11.4 rebounds per contest.

At 5’8”, she played center all four years at UNCG, led the team in scoring all four years and finished her career with 1,347 points, an average of 18.5, with a single-game high of 36. Current college teams often play 30 or more games per season, but 21 was the most she ever played in a campaign, and three of the four years, UNCG played fewer than 20. The school had a 48-26 record while she was there, and there were wins over Tennessee, UNC, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest and South Carolina. She was a two-time all-state selection.

Wiggs went on to serve as an assistant to Kay Yow at N.C. State for seven years. She was the head basketball coach at Methodist for 12 years and was also that school’s athletic director for seven years. She is currently the commissioner of the USA South Conference. Wiggs is a member of the UNCG Athletics Hall of Fame, the Methodist Athletics Hall of Fame and the Fayetteville Sports Club Hall of Fame.

I don’t mind saying that Rita is one of my all-time favorite athletes and people. While I admired her skills, what really endeared Wiggs to me was the kind of competitor she was. Talk about playing hard — she always did, regardless of the score or stage of the contest.

“I had such a passion for the game,” she recalls.

As for the person part, well, Wiggs has it all there, too. She has integrity, and her character is evident in everything she does. And she is still a battler, part of the reason she has survived two battles with cancer.

“I have enjoyed everything I’ve done,” she says. “I have channeled the competitive juices into other areas, trying to make our conference one of the best. As a coach, you have to be a goal setter, and I continue to do that. I am still a member of a team, and we all work together for the USA South Athletic Conference.”

It would be easy to look back and think what might have been if Wiggs had the opportunity today’s female athletes have. It would be easy to bask in memories of her glory days.

“I am glad to have had the chance to play basketball,” she says. “In high school, I played for Doris Howard, a great coach and someone I treasure as a dear friend. And to play college basketball was wonderful.

“I don’t live in the past, though, but I sure remember it fondly.”

As do all of us who saw Rita Wiggs play basketball.