FLORENCE — Even head coach Terry Fowler was surprised when his North Alabama women’s team got off to a 4-0 start in Gulf South Conference play.
The Lions are one of the youngest teams in the conference with just one senior playing after starting forward Julia Myers was lost for the season with a knee injury. But a remarkable comeback win at Delta State earlier this month served notice the Lions should contend for a conference title.
UNA then lost three of its next four before beating West Alabama last Saturday. The Lions (13-6, 6-3 GSC) begin the second half of conference play this week with games at West Florida (5-12, 2-7) on Thursday and at Valdosta State (10-7, 3-6) on Saturday.
“This team has really been a pleasant surprise,” Fowler said. “If you had told me before conference play started that we would be 6-3 at this point I would sure have taken it. This group got on a roll early in the season and it carried over into conference play.”
At the halfway mark of GSC play, UNA is tied for second place, one game behind Union (12-5, 7-2). Delta State (11-6, 6-3) and Shorter (11-6, 6-3) are tied with UNA.
Because Union and Shorter are provisional
conference members, they are ineligible for the postseason tournament. That means that UNA and Delta State are basically tied for the top spot in the GSC.
“There are a lot of good teams but there is no dominant team that has separated itself from everyone,” Fowler said. “The two new teams have raised the level of play. This is one of those years where any team is capable of beating any other team on a given night.”
Fowler said there have been two keys to UNA’s success this season.
“One key is that we’ve had a consistent lineup,” he said. “Since the fourth game when Julia got hurt we’ve started the same lineup every night. Everybody knows their role.”
“The other thing is that this group has continued to get better. We’ve taken a step back a couple of times, but we are so much better now than we were in November.”
Fowler constantly preaches being task-oriented instead of result-oriented to his team. He tells players to focus on getting better and the wins will come.
Junior center Nichelle Fillmore admits the team got away from that concept after starting 4-0 in conference play.
“We sort of lost our focus and it hurt us,” Fillmore said. “We were not coming out and playing with the energy we needed. If we just play hard every night we’ll be fine.
“Being 6-3 is good, but we’re not happy with it because we know we could have done better.”
Fillmore and junior Mekena Randle have given the Lions a duel threat in the post. Randle is ninth in the GSC in scoring (13.1 ppg.) and second in rebounding (10.3 rpg.). Fillmore has missed playing time with foul trouble, but ranks second on the team in scoring (10.3 ppg) and rebounding (5.3 rpg.).
Fowler said getting a third scoring threat is one key to UNA’s chances in the second half of conference play.
“The main thing we have to do is get consistent effort at the beginning of every game,” he said. “The other key is that we need a third scorer. It doesn’t have to be the same person every night but we need someone to come through each night.”
UNA put itself in position to compete for the conference championship with its strong first half. The Lions also could be in the running for a berth in the NCAA Regional with a strong finish.
Fowler doesn’t want his team looking that far ahead. Instead, he wants them to keep focusing on improving every day.
“I feel like we started thinking about the regional at one point and we sort of lost our focus,” he said. “One thing I learned from the 2010-11 season was that you just have to keep winning. All we can do is keep playing hard and see what happens.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.