When the Central Arkansas women's basketball team gathered last summer, its coaches repeated the same message.
"They kept telling us that we were going to be a great team," junior guard Maggie Proffitt said. "They said: 'You're just going to have to trust us.' "
Central Ark. women vs. McNeese State
WHAT Southland Conference Tournament semifinals WHEN 1 p.m. Central WHERE Merrell Center, Katy, Texas RECORDS UCA 26-3; McNeese State 20-11 SERIES UCA leads 13-8 RADIO KUCA-FM, 91.3, in Conway INTERNET ESPN3
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
POS. NAME, HT, YR PPG RPG G Maggie Proffitt, 5-11, So. 14.6 2.2 G Brianna Mullins, 5-6, Sr. 10.1 5.0 G Jameka Watkins, 5-6, Sr. 5.1 2.9 F Taylor Baudoin, 5-11, So. 9.4 6.2 F Kendara Watts, 5-10, Sr. 8.2 4.8 COACH Sandra Rushing (76-44 in fourth season at Central Arkansas and 330-102 in 14 seasons overall)
POS. NAME, HT, YR PPG RPG G Allison Baggett, 5-9, Sr. 14.0 2.9 G Jayln Johnson, 5-5, Sr. 14.9 1.7 G Victoria Rachal, 5-7, Jr. 6.2 1.7 F Frederica Haywood, 6-1, So. 6.1 9.2 F Jasmyn Carswell, 6-0, So.5.8 6.1
COACH Brooks Donald-Williams (161-128 in nine seasons at McNeese State and overall)
UCA MSU 64.9 Points for 71.8 51.0 Points against 71.8 +7.6 Rebound margin -0.3 +1.7 Turnover margin +1.3 42.6 FG pct. 40.2 34.6 3-pt. pct. 32.2 73.4 FT pct. 73.7 CHALK TALK The Sugar Bears won both of the regular-season games between the two teams. UCA won 70-56 on Feb. 17 in Lake Charles, La., then closed the regular season on March 5 with a 76-52 victory over the Cowgirls at the Farris Center in Conway. … UCA junior Maggie Proffitt was named firstteam All-Southland Conference, while Mc-Neese State seniors Jayln Johnson and Allison Baggett were second-team selections. Brianna Mullinswas a third-team pick.
— Frankie Frisco
Proffitt admits now that she wasn't sure what great meant.
"I don't think we thought this as a team," she said.
Backed by a stingy defense, Proffitt's three-point shooting and a little bit of everything from junior guard Brianna Mullins, the Sugar Bears are having their best season in more than a decade as they head to Katy, Texas, for the Southland Conference Tournament.
UCA (26-3) left Conway on Thursday -- the day the tournament began -- as a perk of being the tournament's No. 1 seed. The Sugar Bears didn't finish with the best record in the Southland, but Abilene Christian is ineligible for the tournament.
UCA will play at 1 p.m. today against McNeese State as the presumptive favorite.
Coach Sandra Rushing said she doesn't necessarily want her team acting like the favorite this weekend, but she does want to see her players compete with the same level of defensive intensity as they did through a 16-2 Southland season.
"I want this team to believe in themselves and how far we've come," said Rushing, whose team needs two victories for its first Division I NCAA Tournament berth. "We don't need to talk about being the favorites, we need to talk about playing basketball for 80 minutes. Two games -- 80 minutes."
Rushing's breakthrough year as UCA coach -- the team was 50-41 in three seasons under Rushing before this season -- came in her fourth year, the same time frame it took her to break through at Delta State. In 2005-2006, she led Delta State to a 30-3 record and a trip to the third round of the NCAA Division II tournament, which kick-started seven consecutive 20-victory seasons before she took the UCA job in 2012.
Although she said the timeline is the same, this UCA team is different. The Sugar Bears rely on defense -- they're sixth nationally in scoring defense at 51.0 points allowed -- and Rushing said it is probably "the closest team that I've ever coached." Seeds for both were planted in June when Rushing instilled her message.
"June is not fun," Rushing said. "They're giving up their summer, they're going to school. But, I think we developed some toughness in June."
Proffitt, a first-team all-Southland pick after averaging 14.6 points and making 64 three-pointers, said she wasn't sure about the team's ceiling even after the season began. UCA beat Hendrix 72-43 on Nov. 13 to open the season, then lost at Tennessee 102-47 on Nov. 15. That was followed by a victory at Murray State, over Alcorn State at home and then Murray State at home.
"That really started our confidence," Proffitt said.
The Sugar Bears have been consistent ever since, twice winning nine games in a row. They were 10-1 to start Southland play, then after a loss to Abilene Christian, they won nine in a row again, letting a team score more than 58 points once. After a 60-56 home loss to Northwestern (La.) State, they won their final seven games to ensure the No. 1 seed.
They enter the tournament not only first in scoring defense in the conference but also in field goal percentage defense (36.0 percent) and rebound margin (plus-7).
"Like coach always preaches, we're going to get beat one-on-one, everybody is," Proffitt said. "We trust each other. I know that we're going to do a good job of rotating and playing off of each other."
Rushing said she's not worried about the week layoff before today's game. She prefers the advantages of less games to play in the tournament.
"We know how important this is," she said. "This is what we've been working for since June. We just have to go play. We have to continue to do what we've been doing. There might be some nerves, but we'll settle down and do what we do."
Sports on 03/12/2016