It should have been a shoo-in. But when the buzzer signaling the end of the fourth quarter rang out, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, Union University, was behind the University of Tampa by 10 points, eliminating them in the opening game of the 2016 NCAA DII National Championships. Union’s women’s basketball ended their season 28-4 overall while the 8-seed Tampa advanced to the region semifinals with a 20-12 record.
This year, Union’s women’s basketball team was voted to finish first in the Gulf South Conference by the conferences coaches.
Union finished the 2015-2016 season with a GSC record of 20-2. The 20 conference wins set a new GSC record, breaking the previous record of 19 GSC wins established by the head coach of women’s basketball Mark Campbell. Although Union won their second straight GSC regular season title, they finished runner-up in the GSC Tournament.
“There’s definitely a target, but, for me, it gives me a lot more confidence,” sophomore guard Jada Smith said. “I think for everyone else, we have high expectations and even though it’s hard to hold those expectations, I think that we’re good enough to and we work hard enough to.”
Smith was named to the GSC Preseason All-GSC team. Last year, she was named the GSC Freshman of the week three times and made the GSC All-Tournament team. She was second on the team last year with 11.7 points per game and led the Lady Bulldogs with five assists per game.
“You know, I don’t go for those individual things, but it meant a lot to kind of prove some people wrong, to show that I can be the player that I can be,” she said.
Last year, Smith was one of two starting freshman guards, the first time Campbell started with two freshmen in 18 years as a coach.
“We tried to limit the decisions they had to make and put them in better chances for success,” assistant coach Lauren Sumski said. “This year, we’re having more motion, they’re going to have to see a lot more of the floor at one time and they’re going to have to make more decisions with different things happening around them, as opposed to just really focusing on one side of the floor.”
The team is trying a different playing style this year, setting more screens and placing the defense in more negative positions, forcing the guards to make more decisions. However, the team may play differently later in the season, as one of their best forwards won’t be eligible to play until after Christmas.
“We’re trying some different stuff out on the court, so it’s definitely going to be interesting and a little more difficult to see how everyone works well with the differences,” Smith said. “Even the people who were here last year haven’t adjusted to the differences, so we’re just kind of having to teach each other and learn all at the same time.”
The team practices almost every day, sometimes twice a day.
“I think the coaches have been doing a really good job of organizing everything for us…We’ve been just kind of getting used to working with each other,” freshman McKenna Montgomery said. “We have some good shooters, we have some good posts, so it’s just being able to use people’s strengths and being able to use someone else’s strength to draw the defense away.”
Sumski has seen a lot of all-around improvement in all of the returning players and believe that the new players will prove greatly valuable to the team.
“We have some young ladies that can make plays at a lot more positions this year…so people who were regarded just as shooters last year, they’re now able to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim,” Sumski said. “We have some transfers who I really, really think are going to be able to contribute. Everyone we signed is going to have a chance to make an impact really early, so we’re excited about that.”
Sumski said that a major strength this season is the maturity and unity of the team.
“We’re more experienced [than last year],” she said. “We always have young ladies with soft hearts, but this year’s team is doing such a great job of serving each other already…They seem to love each other and they worked really hard in the preseason together.”
The women’s basketball team opens their season in an exhibition game against the University of Kentucky on Nov. 3. They will play more two more exhibition games, one being homecoming on Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. in Fred Delay Gymnasium, before starting their regular season Nov. 11-12 at the South Region Crossover Classic at Nova Southeastern University. Union’s first regular season home game is Nov. 22 against Lane College at 6 p.m.