A repeat run to the semifinals of the NAIA Division I basketball tournament will be a tough task for the Lee University women's team, but the Lady Flames remain dangerous even with four freshmen in key roles.
For seniors Brooke McKinnon and Kayla Carlisle, though, this year is it. It's the fourth time for both to be at Jackson, Tenn., for the national tournament, although Carlisle's first two seasons were with Berry College.
The Lee men made the quarterfinals last year and return to Kansas City, Mo., with a chance to go further - especially if they can keep turnovers to a minimum. The Flames (22-8) begin play at 3:15 p.m. EDT Wednesday against Columbia (26-5) of Missouri, which edged them in the first round two years ago and went on to finish second.
The Lady Flames (25-6) open at 11:15 a.m. EDT Wednesday against Xavier (26-6) from New Orleans, which beat them 59-48 on Dec. 6 as Lee's third tough game in four days.
"Obviously we want to go out with a national championship. That's what we've worked for all season," said McKinnon, the 5-foot-6 guard from Tellico Plains who has averaged 17.7 points a game and was the co-player of the year in the Southern States Athletic Conference. "But I'm excited just to be here again, and I think all the girls are excited and have come to play. It's the best time of year for me."
Coach Marty Rowe, in Jackson for the 11th year in a row, said by phone from Jackson that last year's Lady Flames had three seniors, including All-American post Katie Nelson, who had reached the quarterfinals in 2009.
"They came here with a lot of confidence and knowing how to approach the week," he said. "Now we have four freshmen thrust into those minutes with no idea what this week's about. All we're thinking about right now is getting our feet under us for this first game and getting them a little confidence.
"It's so hard to advance here. There are so many good teams. You've really got to play one possession at a time, one game at a time."
Hollie German from Polk County heads that freshman group with 27.6 minutes and 9.9 points a game, the team's second highest scoring average. McMinn Central's Madison Lee, Sequatchie County's Rachel Lockhart and Kingston Springs' Karley Miller also play 18-20 minutes a game.
Carlisle, a 6-1 post player from Greer, S.C., is 3-for-3 so far in reaching NAIA semifinals as a Lady Flame. That's twice in volleyball - Lee was 39-1 in 2010. She's averaging 7.3 points and 7.1 rebounds a game this basketball season.
"She's had a great run," Rowe said. "Coming to us straight from volleyball, she doesn't have the advantage of preseason work, so us having some extra time before the conference tournament and before this tournament has given Kayla a chance to get more comfortable."
McKinnon noted that Carlisle wasn't available yet when the Lady Flames previously played Xavier, "and the freshmen are not freshmen anymore. We've come a long way, and we're playing well as a team. Playing Xavier again, obviously we have film, and we can learn from what we did and didn't do against them the last time."
The Lady Flames depend a lot on their hustling defense, and so do coach Tommy Brown's Flames.
"This is probably the best defensive team I've had at Lee," Brown said, "and we're a good rebounding team. That's two things you've got to have. But we have turned the ball over all year. Our shooting percentage is real good, but we commit more turnovers than anybody in the country, so we have to protect the ball better."
The Flames lost their one true point guard to school discipline in October, so Brown has used several guys to run the offense. Six-foot-7 senior Larriques Cunningham, a flying dunk specialist, has done much of it lately, backed up by sophomore Brice Sharp.
"Columbia is big and they give up only 53 points a game," Brown said, "But we will be a little more athletic and faster."
Senior wing Jerel Blocker was the SSAC men's player of the year and averages 17 points a game but has been slowed recently by surgery for an ingrown toenail and a sprained wrist.
"The toe still kind of hurts, but I practiced well today," Blocker said Monday. "I think we've got a pretty good chance."
He has been helped since Christmas by the eligibility of senior Marshall transfer Antonio Haymon, averaging 14.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. Cunningham averages 13.6 and 6.8.
"Haymon is very good and tough. He brings a lot to the table," Blocker said. "And we've got great balance. As long as we have somebody to bring the ball upcourt, our offense doesn't really need a point guard."
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.