The start of the current NCAA women’s basketball season was delayed by about a month due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But if you’d been waiting for nearly two years to play a competitive basketball game, what’s a few more weeks? That was the situation for Long Beach State’s Naomi Hunt, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. The redshirt junior forward was sidelined for a full 21 months before LBSU’s 2020-21 season opener against Westmont on December 12.
Hunt had 14 points in the game and helped the Beach to a season-opening victory, which has become the norm for Hunt and her teammates this year. Long Beach State is 7-1 overall with a flawless 6-0 record in the Big West, heading into a pair of games at UC San Diego this weekend.
This season has brought a unique set of challenges with COVID-19 restrictions, testing, game cancellations, and more, but after sitting out for so long, Hunt is grateful to be out on the floor with her team, even in an imperfect environment.
“Overall, just getting out on the court with my team and being healthy so far is great,” Hunt said. “Even last year before COVID, I started appreciating the game more because I was just watching it and wanting to be out there. Even with the restrictions, I appreciate the game a lot more and am thankful for every opportunity I get.”
Long Beach State head coach Jeff Cammon was also grateful to have Hunt back on the court. Not just during games to help the team win, but to have her presence during practices again after so much time off.
“The first practice we had when she was out there and able to go full speed, it was great to see her smile and see the joy she had,” Cammon recalled. “I know when basketball was taken away from me, it was like the end of the world. When you’re passionate about something, and you’ve done it for so long, it’s hard; because that’s kind of your identity, it’s built into you.”
For Hunt, basketball wasn’t her first choice, but it ended up being her best fit. She actually hated basketball as a young kid, preferring softball instead. That changed just before fifth grade when she decided to give basketball another try, and that time it stuck.
“Softball you’re just in one position the entire time, but basketball is more fast-paced and more freeing,” said Hunt of her change of heart. “I felt more free playing basketball than playing softball, so it was more enjoyable for me.”
A self-described introvert when she got to college, Hunt says she’s tried to become more vocal as she’s gotten older. During her four years at the Beach, the redshirt junior has seen herself grow into more of an outspoken leader on the team.
While at Long Beach State, Hunt has also been involved with other initiatives on campus outside of the basketball program. She’s been heavily involved in student government, serving as the ASI Chairwoman of the Social Justice and Equity Committee last year. She also helped lead an effort, along with her teammates, to get every Long Beach State student-athlete and staff member registered to vote earlier this summer.
“I’m just so proud of her growth,” said Cammon. “She came in very quiet, shy, and she didn’t say a lot. But she has taken herself out of her comfort zone and you can see it in all walks of her life. To see her growth and to see her get back to basketball and be able to do something she loves to do, it’s emotional.”
So far this season, Hunt is second on the team in scoring averaging 13.1 points per contest. She’s also second on the team in rebounding and third in both steals and assists. Her versatility is what sets her apart, being able to score inside with her 6-foot-2 frame, while also being one of the most prolific three-point shooters in program history. With 17 made three’s so far this season, she’s now made 127 triples in her Long Beach State career. That places her fifth on the all-time leaderboard at LBSU, just ahead of point guard Hallie Meneses. Reta Sula holds the career record with 198 made three-pointers, meaning Hunt has a great chance to top the leaderboard before her career is done.
After originally signing with former LBSU head coach Jody Wynn, Hunt was part of Cammon’s first group of incoming players when he took over the program in 2017. She believes that with more veterans on the team, the Beach are now in a better position to close out games and turn close losses into close wins, making them a legitimate championship contender in the Big West.
“I think it’s just a mixture of experience and trust,” Hunt said about Long Beach State’s winning edge this season. “We’re older now and we have a lot more experience in those game situations. We’ve played with each other for three to four years. We know how we operate and we know how to talk to each other in those situations.”
Long Beach State has been on an extended break in its season that spans nearly three weeks, with the Beach not playing a game since a 66-64 win over Cal State Fullerton on January 9. But after waiting 21 months between games, 20 days should feel like nothing.