ATHENS, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Wesleyan College women's basketball team changed its approach this season but is winding up in the same place.
Headed for the third year in a row to the NAIA Division II national tournament, junior leader Heather Gibson and the Lady Bulldogs' three seniors think their new inside-out offense gives them their best opportunity yet to succeed in Sioux City, Iowa. And they won a game there last March before losing to a top-seeded hometown team backed by a prime-time audience exceeding five thousand people.
"The first year we were kind of surprised to be going. We were just happy to be there," senior point guard Leah Frazier from McMinn County High School said after the 14th-ranked Lady Bulldogs (24-8) received an at-large bid to the national event. They won the Appalachian Athletic Conference regular season and finished second in the AAC tournament and again are a No. 4 seed opening against a No. 5 -- Hastings (21-10) from Nebraska -- Thursday at 1 p.m. EST.
"Last year we wanted to win a game there, and we did," Frazier added. "I think we're the most prepared this year."
Said Gibson: "We're more of a threat than we were last year. We have both an inside and an outside game, and we have a good bench. You always want to go past where you did the year before, so we want to win two at least. And I think we can."
She and fellow junior Michelle Davis led the Lady Bulldogs for the season with 12.6 and 12.4 points and 6.1 and 6.4 rebounds a game, and they were the team's All-AAC first-team selections. Senior Rochelle Davidson from Cookeville joined Sweetwater's Gibson on the all-defensive team, and Frazier and the other senior, Candace Cain from Polk County, have averaged 8.1 and 8.0 points with Frazier's four assists a game, and each of those two has taken her turn as a game's high scorer.
Sophomore post Cody Houck from Clinton, Tenn. is TWC's third-leading scorer (11.2) and rebounder (5.8), and she and Davidson clearly made strides as part of the team's added inside effectiveness. The biggest difference there, though, was the reinvigorated Davis, the former Cleveland High School standout who signed with North Carolina State, waited out a transfer year and then played a solid freshman season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before deciding to back off from the sport.
She wound up playing last year at Cleveland State Community College but had ordinary numbers. She had to rebuild her strength as well as her enthusiasm but got the word out that she would love to continue her career at Wesleyan.
"Of course we wanted her. There are not too many 6-2 athletes like her, who can score outside or inside," TWC coach Jeff Rice said. "She plays hard for us and fits in well, and she definitely loves the game.
"From day one she came in and worked hard."
Frazier grew up as a penetrating point guard with a potent post to dish to, and she saw soon in summer workouts that Davis gave her that option again.
"I told Coach I was so happy Michelle was here. I could go back to my old self," Frazier said. "And since the beginning of the year we have gotten a lot better at getting the ball inside instead of just working from the outside like in the past. With Michelle, Cody and Ro and what they can do, it's hard not to get the ball to them."
With Davidson, the harder thing is for other teams' top post players to do something with the ball.
"Rochelle has become one of the best defensive players we've ever had," Rice said. "She guarded the conference player of the year the other night and held her to seven points, 13 below her average."
Said Davidson: "Some people are born to score. I think I was born to keep people from scoring."
The Lady Bulldogs as a team specialize not in turnover-causing defense but in contesting shots and establishing rebounding position.
"I think we're really good at what we do," Rice said, "and on offense we've done a pretty good job of getting the ball to who's hot. We don't have anybody averaging 18 or 19 points a game, but we have several who can get 18 or 19 in a game.
"We had some growing pains early this year as we tried to go from being a perimeter-oriented team to going inside. That took a little getting used to, but I knew we had to stick with it."
The variety of skills that Gibson provides remains the backbone of the offense, though.
"She's a 5-8 athlete that you don't see at this level very often," Rice said. "She can do it all. She has size, speed and strength, and she has been very consistent. She shoots the ball well and handles it pretty well. She can get to the rim with her speed and strength, and she also has a good midrange jumper."
Last Monday's loss to Union College in the AAC tourney final, when TWC blew an early lead by shooting 17.2 percent from the field in the second half, is a motivator at this point.
"Waiting for the [at-large invitation] was nerve-racking," Davidson said. "For the three seniors, it gives us a chance to redeem our season, and no one will work harder than us. We hope teammates will match us, but I guarantee that nobody will outwork us."
Said Cain: "I think we will take advantage of this. We feel blessed to have this chance."
All three seniors and Gibson are education majors, Gibson doubling in accounting, and they have the added bond of wedding plans in a few months. Frazier is getting married on June 16, Davidson on July 14, and they will be in each other's ceremony. Gibson will be a bridesmaid for both, and Cain will be attending in each case.
But they've got Tennessee Wesleyan history to finish first.
• TWC will open the NAIA Division II men's tournament at Point Lookout, Mo., at 9:30 a.m. EST Wednesday against Northwestern from Iowa, which is 25-6 and seeded ninth out of the 32 teams. Coach Mike Poe's Bulldogs are 24-9 with 12 wins in a row.