FLORENCE — North Alabama guard Sarah Bailey was not surprised when she heard the Lions were picked to finish fifth in the Gulf South Conference in the annual preseason coach’s poll.
After all, the Lions lost four starters from last year’s team that finished 15-13 and in sixth place in the GSC standings. UNA was depending on several inexperienced players to step in and play key roles this season.
“I knew we had lost some good players, so the preseason poll did not really surprise me,” Bailey said. “But it still made us want to prove them wrong. It motivated us because we wanted to prove that we have a good program.”
Like Bailey, head coach Terry Fowler was not at all surprised with his team’s preseason ranking. While he liked the Lions’ potential, he knew that there would be plenty of growing pains for his young team.
“We had no real expectations for this team entering the season,” Fowler said. “Our goal was simply to get better on the floor every day and to grow closer as a team. We figured that if we did those things then all the basketball stuff would work itself out.”
The team that came into the season with such modest expectations completed its regular season this past Saturday with a win at West Alabama. The win gave the Lions a 19-9 overall record and a 12-6 mark in the GSC.
That record earned the Lions the No. 2 seed in this week’s GSC Tournament in Birmingham. The Lions will play Christian Brothers (7-19) on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.
UNA’s season began with a 72-56 loss to Tuskegee. The Lions then won their next three and later put together a six-game winning streak that included GSC victories over West Florida and Valdosta State.
Junior center Nichelle Fillmore admits that UNA’s season was not a case of everything clicking from the beginning.
“We’ve had our ups and downs and faced some adversity over the course of the season,” Fillmore said. “It took some time, but we get it together and formed a good chemistry. We seemed to get it together at the right time.”
Fowler said there were a couple of turning points this year when the Lions started to believe in themselves.
“I felt like the kids really believed they could play after we beat Valdosta State in our first conference game,” Fowler said. “That is always such a tough game and for such a young team to win that game was a turning point for us.
“The other was when we played in the Christmas tournament in Florida. Tampa was ranked No. 16 and we were down by one point with around two minutes to go. That gave us some confidence and it led into the next week when we won at Christian Brothers and Delta State.”
UNA is not a team filled with stars. Only two players average scoring double figures in junior forward Mekena Randle (11.8 ppg.) and Fillmore (10.6 ppg.). Bailey, who starts at one guard ranks third on the team in scoring (8.2 ppg.) and is a defensive stopper. Sophomore Lauren Faris (6.6 ppg.) has been steady at point guard and is starting to emerge as a scoring threat, while Jennifer Towne (7.6 ppg.) is one of the top freshmen in the conference.
“Someone different seems to step up every game,” Bailey said. “The key is that everyone on this team is so unselfish. We don’t care about how many minutes we play — we just want to win.”
The success the Lions enjoyed during the regular season has certainly raised the expectations for the postseason. UNA was ranked No. 6 in last week’s regional rankings and the top eight teams in the final region rankings earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
“We haven’t really talked about the regional, but the girls know what’s at stake,” Fowler said. “We probably need to get to the semifinals to make sure we get to the regional.
“Our team is confident but not in an arrogant way. They believe in our preparation and they believe in one another. If we stay together as a team we should be fine.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.