True teamwork has carried the Tennessee Wesleyan College basketball Lady Bulldogs to 19 consecutive wins and 15th place in the NAIA Division II rankings.
Tonight they can make it 20 victories in a row as they host the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament semifinals. Wesleyan (27-3) faces Bluefield (11-19) after Milligan (23-8) and Montreat (25-4) square off at 5:30 in Robb Gymnasium. The final is set for 7 p.m. Saturday.
The TWC men (12-19), after upsetting Bryan on Wednesday, play at 2 p.m. Saturday against Reinhardt at Milligan.
While the Bulldogs can get to the national tournament only by winning two more games, Jeff Rice's Lady Bulldogs may already have done enough to get a return trip to Iowa. But he and his team want to make sure.
"They take 11 at-large teams and we're ranked 15th and shouldn't fall very far even if we lose this weekend," Rice said Thursday, "but the only way we can guarantee we're going is to win Friday and Saturday."
Rice was an assistant coach for Stan Harrison's TWC team that went 32-3 with a school-record 27 straight wins before losing in the second round of the NAIA nationals. The current streak is "not something we talk about," he said.
"We know we've won a bunch in a row, and we probably should have lost some of those games but found a way to win," he added. "These girls really believe in each other, they trust each other, they love each other and they play hard for each other."
No one averages even 14 points a game for the Lady Bulldogs, but several often score more. Senior Amy Jo Castor and sophomore Heather Gibson average 13.4 and 13.28 points a game, and junior Candace Cain averages 10.17. Freshman backup post Cody Houck and veteran point guard Leah Frazier average 8.75 and 8.5.
"We're really versatile," Rice said. "Of our top seven or eight, everybody's capable of putting the ball in the basket, even from the arc. Other teams can't really try to stop one or two people—what it comes down to is they can't stop us all. There's going to be a mismatch on the floor for us every game. It's just a matter of finding the open person and knocking down shots."
Said Castor: "We work really together. We're not super quick, but we're able to beat people off the dribble with fakes and them having to respect our 3-point shots."
Defensively, the Lady Bulldogs play strictly man-to-man and don't rely on "help," and they go hard to the backboards.
"Our posts do a good job of not letting other posts get rebounds, and our wings do a good job rebounding," Rice said.
The 5-foot-7 Gibson is second in the AAC with 7.45 rebounds a game, and fellow wing Cain is second on the team with 6.4.
"Basically our game plan is to outhustle and outplay the other team," Castor said. "On defense, you've got to be accountable for your girl and not let her get by you."
Picked to finish third in the AAC even after winning the league tournament last year, the Lady Bulldogs won the regular season by four games. Down the stretch, Castor said, they were motivated by the desire to be the first team in program history to go unbeaten in conference play. They came back from 10 down last Saturday to beat Virginia Intermont.
"Our motivation now is we want another championship ring," Steen said, "and we want to go back to Iowa. Last year we were kind of a surprise to go, and we went and had a blast. This year we want to go back and win a game or two—or all of it. We knew how good of a team we were—we just had to prove it.
"This team is closer than any team I've been on. We enjoy hanging out together and having fun together even away from basketball," Steen added. "And we know each other so well, when we're on the court we know who needs to have the ball in their hands at different times."