P-Nut Payton still dreams of playing Division I ball.
In a roundabout way, a junior college offers the best opportunity at just that. Correction: the best Juco school in the country.
Fresh off a Daily News Player of the Year campaign, the Fort Walton Beach senior point guard signed with two-time defending national champion Gulf Coast State on Wednesday.
“Not only do they have back-to-back national champions, they have players getting All-American honors and Player of the Year awards,” said Payton, who was also getting attention from Santa Fe, Chipola and Troy. “It was the best opportunity for me to get to where I want to be.”
On the want list, the Panama City-based Commodores checked off every box.
Close to home. Check.
A welcoming campus. Check
A Hall-of-Fame coach in Mary “Roonie” Scovel. Check.
An up-tempo offense that can run any defense out of the gym. Check.
“I felt like it was a really good fit for me,” Payton said. “My mom of course cried at the signing.”
Fort Walton Beach head coach Holly McDaniel gushed about the winning culture and coaching staff at Gulf Coast State, where Scovel is joined by an Emerald coast fixture in coach Grover Hicks.
“We are extremely excited for P-Nut to have the opportunity to play for a staff and program that is considered the best in the country,” McDaniel said. “P-Nut wanted to find a place that will challenge her both athletically and academically. It is such a blessing that she will get that opportunity so close to home. From day one coach Scovel and coach Hicks have made the process nothing but the best.”
Just as Payton viewed Gulf Coast State as the perfect venue to win, the Commodores viewed Payton as the perfect point guard to continue their winning tradition. In Payton, Scovel saw a product of the rich basketball culture at Fort Walton Beach.
“I’m excited about the program she comes from, which has just been outstanding for the last 30-or-so years now,” said Scovel, who’s led the Commodores to an 11-0 start and No. 1 ranking this season. “I’m friends with Holly McDaniel and P-Nut is a reflection of the hard work McDaniel and her staff put in. P-Nut’s very talented, very athletic, very quick. She’s very verbal and her work ethic is just tremendous.
“She’ll fit into our up-tempo system well.”
In Gulf Coast State, Payton sees an environment where she can be a premier facilitator, scorer and defensive presence. She also plays well above her 5-foot-6 frame on the boards.
Her ability to fill up the box score was evident last year when she averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals per game to nab Daily News Player of the Year honors. And she saved her best basketball for the Final Four.
In Lakeland she delivered 41 points, 26 rebounds, five steals and two blocks. She also shot 50 percent from the floor, hit four treys and made all eight attempts from the charity stripe to lead the Vikings to a runner-up finish.
This season has been much the same for Payton, who’s a nightly triple-double threat in leading the Vikings to an 8-4 start.
As for transitioning to the Juco level, Payton said she’s looking forward to getting in the weight room and tacking on muscle. Until then, Payton will focus on helping the Vikings defend their district and regional crowns.
“The goals this year are most definitely to find chemistry and play better together,” she said. “As the season goes on, we’ll start looking at the bigger goals.”