Lady Barons make 2nd NAIA national tourney appearance
By Terry Gaston
MOUNT VERNON -- When Tommy Dalley began his fourth season as the Brewton-Parker College Lady Barons basketball coach back in November, he had eight freshmen who had to replace eight departed players.
The Lady Barons, with a solid core of three returning seniors and several other key returnees, jelled with the freshmen and bolted to a 10-2 start to the season.
Four months later, the Lady Barons finished third in the Georgia-Alabama-Carolina Conference, a result that led to their selection as an at-large team to the 23rd annual NAIA Division I national women's tournament in Jackson, Tenn.
The Lady Barons were matched against a tradition-rich program from Southern Nazarene University of Bethany, Okla., for their first-round game Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time.
"I knew we had a lot of potential, because we signed some really good players, but I never thought we would be 24-8 and headed to the national tournament," said Dalley, who is coaching the Lady Barons to their second NAIA tourney appearance in three years after a third straight 20-win season.
"We have a bunch of girls who play as hard as they can play day in and day out, and that is how you become successful. We had our ups and downs throughout the year, but we had a run at the end of the year where we looked as good as anyone in our league. We beat some teams we weren't supposed to beat."
The Lady Barons are led by three seniors: forward Tameka Oliver of Savannah, guard Lucinda Lessington of Sylvania and guard Takara Solomon of Eustis, Fla.
The 6-foot-3 Oliver averages 16.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, with the 5-9 Solomon averaging 12.7 points (second to Oliver) and 4.9 rebounds (third, behind Oliver and junior guard Toya Rogers' 5.8 average). Oliver and Solomon are among the NAIA's top free-throw shooters, with averages at 83 percent.
Oliver and Solomon were both selected to the GACC's All-Conference Team, and guard Ashley Little of Lawrenceville made the GACC's All-Freshman Team. The 5-4 Little is third on the team in scoring average with 11.8 points per game and leads the Lady Barons in 3-point shooting with 72 treys (37.1 percent).
Oliver also made the GACC postseason tournament's All-Tourney Team.
The 5-8 Lessington has come on strong at season's end after being limited by a knee injury she suffered. Dalley sees Lessington's leadership as invaluable at this stage, as she is the only remaining Lady Baron starter from the 2001 national qualifying team.
In comparing the national qualifying experience of this year to that in 2001, Dalley said he detects a more confident aura with this year's team than from two years ago. Certainly helpful is that five players remain on the team from 2001.
"This team is a little different because I don't think adverse things faze them like they did the team from two years ago," Dalley said. "They can be excited and have some anxiety, but mentally I think we are tough enough to overcome that."
For the first time, the tournament is bracket into four eight-team quarters with each team seeded. Brewton-Parker is seeded No. 7 in the third quarter and Southern Nazarene (24-9) is No. 2 after finishing the regular season as the sixth-ranked team in the NAIA I national ratings.
The Crimson Storm made the championship game last year, losing to Sooner Athletic Conference rival and four-time defending national champion Oklahoma City University. This year, Oklahoma City is season-long No. 1 ranked and undefeated at 28-0.
The Crimson Storm is the second seed in with three of its losses to Oklahoma City, which is No. 1 ranked, undefeated and four-time defending national champion. Combined with SNU's string of four national championships from 1994-97, the Sooner Conference has claimed eight of the past nine NAIA titles.
Southern Nazarene has won five NAIA championships in all, the first in its first national tournament appearance in 1989, and has made at least the final-four round 10 straight years.
"They are very talented, with 6-3 and 6-4 players inside from Senegal and a number two guard from Russia who can really shoot," Dalley said of the Crimson Storm. "They play an up-tempo style, which should be to our benefit."
The two teams that finished ahead of Brewton-Parker in the GACC standings and tournament will be playing their first-round games Thursday.
North Georgia College and State University (29-5), which finished the season ranked No. 9 after winning the GACC tournament, is the No. 2 seed in the first quarter and plays Oklahoma Baptist University at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
No. 11 ranked and 25-8 Auburn University Montgomery (Ala.), the GACC regular-season champion and tournament runner-up, is the No. 3 seed in the fourth quarter and plays Thursday at 10 a.m. against Transylvania University (Ky.)
"This is THE national championship and 32 of the best teams are playing for one championship," Dalley said in summarizing the task. "Nobody's record matters now. We are going to play as hard as we can and leave it all on the floor."
Statistical updates on the games are available online by logging onto the NAIA's Web site at www.naia.org and clicking on the NAIA Division I women's webcast link.