UTC's Alicia Payne outstanding in SoCon title run

UTC senior point guard Alicia Payne has become more vocal, more aggressive and more of a scorer in the latter portion of this season, and it has helped the Mocs enjoy an 11-game winning streak that includes Sunday's victory in the SoCon tournament title game.
photo UTC's Alicia Payne against Mercer in the SoCon Women championship game. Utc won 65-57.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Alicia Payne is exactly what University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Jim Foster doesn't want in a point guard.

And that's OK - because she knows how to win and what it takes to win.

The 5-foot-9 Payne was named the Southern Conference tournament's most outstanding player after averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 assists and two steals for the Mocs, who claimed their fourth consecutive conference title and 17th overall with a 65-57 win over Mercer on Sunday.

Foster has been imploring his lone senior to be more of a leader in recent weeks. He kept saying "she can do more," implying her scoring, and Payne - who hails from Memphis and is nicknamed "Red" - responded with a tournament average that was three times her career scoring average and nearly twice her season average.

"Red has grown a lot," Foster said. "I'm very demanding of my point guard, but she's the opposite of what I demand. I want them to be a talker, want them to be demonstrative, an organizer. I want them to know what I call and where I would call it. Somewhere in the blip of the last 10 games, though, a metamorphosis has taken place.

"She talks a lot. She makes big plays, less Red plays, Memphis plays."

As Payne started becoming more aggressive, the Mocs' fortunes began to turn around this season.

It's no coincidence they've won 11 straight games.

"Coach knew I could do more, that I had it in me and what was expected in me," Payne said. "I've just had to show it."

Payne will leave the U.S. Cellular Center having never lost a game at the regular host of the SoCon tournament.

This season was a lot more of a struggle, though, because the team had to find an identity late in the season, with Payne learning to become a leader in the process. That change was no more evident than on Feb. 19, a day before the team was to play Mercer with a chance to draw even with the Bears in the loss column in the SoCon regular-season race.

Not happy with the team's practice, Foster booted the team out of the gym, saying he didn't think they were working hard. Payne arranged a team-only shootaround in McKenzie Arena late that Friday evening, and the team responded with a 22-point win the next day.

"We didn't have energy," UTC junior center Jasmine Joyner said of that practice. "We didn't realize how important that game was next, and we came out dry and weren't practicing like a team.

"Red told us to not get too comfortable, that we were coming back. What we were doing was unacceptable, something we would have done in the preseason."

All of the Mocs' success in Asheville in recent years hasn't translated to the next round of postseason play, though.

The team has lost three consecutive first-round games in the NCAA tournament, but that won't - not for a second - take away from what this team has accomplished to this point.

"All the things we've been through both on and off the court, we've been through a lot, so it's great to come together when needed," Payne said. "This time we want to get past the first round and make a run for the championship."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.