CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Lee University is making its eighth consecutive appearance in the NAIA Division I women's national basketball tournament this week. It's the 12th trip in a row for Lady Flames coach Marty Rowe.
But there is something different about this one. They're driving to Frankfort, Ky., instead of Jackson, Tenn.
Each team is different, too, and this 30-3 group - ranked seventh nationally - has its trademark, Rowe said. It does not have a 2,000-plus-point career scorer as the last two sets of Lady Flames did, so the 30 victories came from a wider variety of players and a wider range of ways.
Sophomore guard Hollie German from Polk County and senior guard Angela Spann from Lawrence County lead the team in scoring with 15.9 and 13.1 points a game. The next highest average is the 8.1 per game for another senior guard, Kally Eldridge from Bradley Central, who contributes "a lot of little things," German said, including tough defense on opposing point guards.
That epitomizes the team, according to the coach.
"We rebound and defend," Rowe said, noting that Thursday night's opening-round opponent, Biola (21-10), has the same strengths.
"This is a tough basketball team," Rowe said of his Lady Flames. "I think it's the toughest team I've ever had here. They have that toughness, that edge, that's hard to describe. We have a lot of dirty-work people who don't mind not getting the spotlight."
They were ranked fourth in the NAIA until losing two of their last four games, including the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament final against Belhaven, but Rowe was philosophical about that.
"If we use it the right way, it can be good for us," he said. "This group does not enjoy losing at all, so if we can take anything from that Belhaven loss - we need to clean up some things - I think that can be a little added motivation to go to Frankfort and play well."
Those last two defeats were "to two really good teams on the road," he added, "and we always are highly targeted, but we have to give credit to those teams."
Said German, who scored 27, 28 and 26 points in Lee's three SSAC tourney games: "The conference tournament isn't as big as the national tournament, but that was one of our goals this year - to win the regular season and conference title - and we got only one of those. But I think the way it worked out is kind of in our favor now: We're using it as motivation."
Spann said the Lady Flames' main concern is always how they play, not opponents' styles. The focus has to be on "little things - rebounding and going for loose balls, effort things we can control."
Added German: "You're not always going to shoot the ball well, but the little things like that you should do well every game."
Spann was on the Lee team that reached the national semifinals two years ago, and she said this group is even closer and more caring about each other.
"I think that carries to the court," she said. "If we play the way we should, we're really good. If we play our way, we can match up with any team in the tournament."
That includes being able to adapt.
"If we have the opportunity we would rather run, but if not we can slow it down, set up plays and execute," Spann said.
Karley Miller, Mary Jackson, Rachel Lockhart, Madison Lee, Jenna Adams and Brooke Hamby are other players who average at least 12 minutes a game. All have made significant contributions at given times.
"It just happened to be my week last week," German said, "but every single game this year we've had somebody step up and fill that role."