Ciara Gregory: Nothin' but Net

The story of how a small town, 27.1 miles outside Pittsburgh produced one of Charlotte's most lethal scorers

It all started on a miniature hoop in the basement of a family home nestled in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pa., 27.1 miles outside the Steel City. Merely 10,000 people reside in the compact city burrowed in Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County, just north of Interstate 76. The town is relatively small; a railroad line horizontally intersects the suburb.

There are pictures of Ciara Gregory during a time before she could remember, holding a basketball, playing with her older brother in the streets where she grew up. She played with all the boys in the YMCA league. The older, more experienced competition placed Gregory on the fast track to success. She had a special talent for the game.

Gregory’s future was bright, evident from a young age.

As high school rolled around, Gregory was adept, confident on the court. She stood out, flaunting an unrivaled jump shot and was one of the most prolific shooters in Western Pennsylvania girls basketball since the turn of the century.

As a freshman she helped lead her team to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) crown while defeating Jeanette’s rival countless time, Greensburg Central Catholic – her fondest memory.

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During Gregory’s senior year, she led her high school averaging 30.4 points per game. This mark set her apart from the rest as she was one of 31 players since 1985 to average 30 points per game or more in the WPIAL. But it didn’t necessarily come easy. Gregory worked hard for her achievements and everything she accomplished on the hardwood.

“My family played basketball,” Gregory said. “My brothers, my uncles, but I also put in a lot of work. I was always around it.”

Gregory was named a 2013 Parade All-American. She earned player of the year accolades from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the two most circulated newspapers in the Steel City. Additionally, Gregory joined the Jeannette Jayhawks’ 2,000 point club, holding the top spot with a school-record 2,130 points.

“She may have one of the quickest releases on her shot that I have ever seen,” Monessen coach Gina Naccarato, the leading scorer in WPIAL history with more than 3,000 career points, told the Post-Gazette in 2013

Gregory recieved numerous offers from multiple top-notch universities but only one school made her feel at home.

“Out of all the visits I took, I felt like this [Charlotte] was the best fit for me,” Gregory said. “The coaches were really genuine. I felt comfortable and my family felt comfortable leaving me here with them.”

The Charlotte 49ers sit anxiously inside their locker room. The elegant voice of Adele and the universally popular Drake echo through Gregory’s headphones as she and her team await their call. The overhead lights inside Halton Arena dim down as the players prepare to emerge from the shadowed tunnel situated to the left of the team’s bench. Up-tempo music blares as the PA announcer introduces the small-town, Pennsylvania native.

Gregory, the 5-foot-7 junior guard emerges from the shadows. She dons the distinguished ghost white jersey with a dark green No. 1 stitched on the chest underneath the nine letters spelling out her new home: Charlotte. Her glossy brown hair is tied back in a loose bun, her nails painted black, a joyful smile worn proudly across her face.

Out of the tunnel, Gregory is met by fellow ‘Splash Sister’ Amaya Ransom.

Best friends off the court, the duo coined the nickname themselves over the summer after resembling the world renowned partnership from Golden State, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The moniker couldn’t be any more accurate.

Much like Curry, Gregory’s shooting is impeccable. Nearly every game since the start of the season, her play has been phenomenal. She knows her role within the team and executes it flawlessly.

As the buzzer sounds, signaling for tip-off between the 49ers and Ball State, Gregory is patient, calm and collected. She now occupies a starting role within the team and is one of Charlotte head coach Cara Consuegra’s key contributors. She’s smart, intelligent and possesses a high basketball IQ.

Despite not scoring in the first 10 minutes, Gregory stayed composed, showcasing an ideal shooter’s mentality like the true marksman she is. The red digits blink down to 9:12 in the second quarter, Gregory unloaded. To the Cardinals’ dismay, she was left alone along the perimeter, 25-feet from the basket. She stopped, planted, elevated and snapped her wrist. Splash.

She drained five 3-pointers and confidently sunk all eight of her foul shots, including four to ice the game. Gregory’s 27 points, a career-high, propelled Charlotte to an opening night victory over Ball State maintaining an unbeaten record in season openers under Consuegra.

Double-digit scoring nights quickly became routine for the junior shooting guard. In the 49ers return to Halton Arena just two days later, Gregory performed at the highest level yet again. Despite being tightly guarded by the Robert Morris defense all night, Gregory still managed to tally 16 points in the 49ers rout of the Colonials.

“I think C is just doing a tremendous job trying to play her role,” Consuegra said following Charlotte’s victories over Ball State and Robert Morris. “I think over this weekend she took, for the most part, really good shots. When she’s locked in and doing what she needs to do on both ends of the floor, we’re a lot better of a team.”

As the season progressed, Gregory’s production elevated. On the road in Raleigh, N.C., playing in the same high school gym once utilized by NBA legend Pete Maravich, Gregory added her name to Charlotte’s record books. She launched 10 3-pointers, sinking six of them becoming just the eighth player in Charlotte’s history to record six threes in a single game.

“We tried to guard Gregory at the 3-point line and I guess we did a good job because she only hit six,” Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore told The News & Observer postgame.

At the time, her accomplishment was impressive to say the least. But again, she has a knack of setting a new precedent each time she steps on the court. Back home in Halton Arena on Dec. 8, Gregory matched her 3-point scoring output from two days prior. This time, she became just the third player in 49ers’ history to tally six threes inside Charlotte’s on-campus arena.

Like Curry, the star shooter she draws inspiration from, this is where Gregory’s on-court instincts and intelligence manifest itself: in her shot selection. As Curry does, Gregory picks her spots meticulously. She’s a nightmare for defenders, constantly moving forcing the opposition to keep an eye on her. She only needs the slightest amount of room to shoot. She creates this advantage, constantly staying in motion moving around teammates into the corners of the court. Her defenders fight around improvised screens but to no avail as Gregory is a step ahead, both physically and metaphorically.

Before Gregory receives the ball, she has a plan. She catches it midway through her shooting motion, instantaneously triggering her quick, smooth jump shot, leaving the opposition defenseless. The best Gregory’s defender can do is get an extended hand in her face.

But her shooting touch isn’t downright hereditary or genetic. It isn’t bestowed, it’s built through endless repetition – shot-by-shot, day-by-day until each movement is pressed into muscle memory. Gregory’s never lacked motivation or desire, firmly believing that the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get. She exemplifies this belief staying after practice, working on her own time to better herself, firing up hundreds of shots.

“Ciara puts a lot of time, her own time, in the gym,” assistant coach Nicole Woods said. “She’s shooting threes and free-throws in her own time.”

To say that her persistence and determination has payed off this season would be an understatement. Gregory currently sits second in the Conference-USA and top 10 in the nation in 3-point field goals made (35). Additionally, she was the only player in the country to maintain and carry a perfect free-throw percentage into the final two weeks of December. Her prodigious success is impressive. Through just 10 games, Gregory is on track to break Charlotte’s single season 3-point field goals made record and currently rests second in Charlotte’s single season 3-point field goal percentage.

“She prepared herself for the opportunity,” Consuegra said. “She knew that the opportunity was coming into her junior year. She stayed patient, kept working and prepared herself. Now that she’s in a starting role, she’s getting a lot of minutes, it helps her get into a flow. For her, she’s been able to play so many consecutive minutes and you’re able to see her true talent. It’s not a coincidence.”

Watching Gregory play is engaging as she continuously accomplishes what many perceive as impractical. But Gregory’s success this season extends beyond the basketball court. Despite shining on the floor, she is an even better teammate and person off the hardwood.

“From the beginning when we signed C and she came here to Charlotte, she has been a great practice player and teammate,” Consuegra said. “She buys into our core values and brings it every day. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have the best team chemistry right now and that starts with C and the young ladies in her class.”

Off the court, Gregory, the psychology major is humble. She’s approachable, friendly and always willing to lend a helping hand.

“She calls soda, pop,” teammate and fellow Splash Sister, Ransom joked. “She’s goofy and is always there. If you ever need a ride somewhere, she’s there for you.”

This is what makes Charlotte such a special team. Gregory’s persona is contagious. She’s always one of the first off the bench to congratulate her teammates and one of the last to leave the practice gym or locker room.

“She cares about her teammates, it’s not about her. She wants to do well but not at the expense of her team,” Consuegra said.

It’s that simple. On an afternoon in the state capital in which Gregory added herself to Charlotte’s record books, her contagious smile grew the widest. Not when she sunk her sixth 3-pointer but when teammate Laia Raventós absorbed the spotlight.


Published here on December 25, 2015. All images used courtesy Benjamin Robson