March Madness might tip off without the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, but the Lady Lions' runner-up finish in the Southwestern Athletic Conference women's basketball championship was enough cause for a celebration Tuesday inside H.O. Clemmons Arena.
The Lady Lions made their first appearance in the SWAC tourney final since joining the conference 26 years ago. A win would have automatically put them in the 68-team field for the NCAA tournament, but Southern University stormed back in the final 7:50 from a 4-point deficit to beat UAPB 62-53 Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.
UAPB finished the season 14-17 and 10-8 in the SWAC, coming from the No. 7 seed to finish in the title game. But they were still feted with a full band behind them and giant Golden Lion poster heads among the crowd.
"We all had it in our minds before we even got to Alabama that we meant business," junior center Maya Peat said. "We wanted to go out and put on a show. We wanted to make history and we were going to do it together."
Peat had 16 points and 5 rebounds in a semifinal win over Alabama State and totaled 10 points and 4 rebounds against Southern. She and sophomore transfer Maori Davenport often split time in the low post, if they didn't share the court together.
UAPB went 1-3 against Alabama A&M and Alabama State combined in the regular season, yet defeated both teams in the SWAC tournament. Southern exacted revenge in the title game after losing to UAPB 70-53 on Jan. 21 in Pine Bluff.
The Jaguars (18-14, 12-6 SWAC) have won 9 of 10 and will play Connecticut's Sacred Heart University in an NCAA First Four game at 8 Central tonight in Stanford, Calif.
"When we came out earlier in the season, I think we were still figuring ourselves out as a team," Peat said. "Going into those two games [A&M and State], I think it was just about us figuring out how we were going to perform. It wasn't how we were going to exploit them; it was how we were going to play together and play our best."
The Lady Lions had a full team available for summer workouts for the first time in Dawn Thornton's four years as coach, and she credits that for giving them an edge going into the season, which they started with a home game against the University of Arkansas.
"We took a brand new team to the championship game, so we're taking a step in the right direction," Thornton said.
Not everyone agreed with a pep rally following a runner-up finish. Some fans who watched Tuesday's event on social media criticized the team for "celebrating losing."
Junior guard Demetria Shephard offered a rebuttal.
"Our entire team, we hate losing," she said. "As a group collectively who has come in here and worked hard every single day with little resources – which is enough – we say that losing isn't enough. Getting there isn't enough. Doing that isn't enough. It's history. It means well, but we just hate the fact of losing, and if we get there, we're going to get it done. Our plan is to build and get it done.
The good news for the Lady Lions is that they're only losing two players from this season's team – graduate students Markisha Body and Raziya Potter – and SWAC Preseason Player of the Year Zaay Green will suit up for her final season after missing all of 2022-23 due to injury. Sophomore guard Corina Carter will come off a transfer redshirt as well.
"To build something big, to build something great, you're always going to have to have a foundation," Shephard said. "With us making history and pushing this program to the next level, I say this has definitely been the foundation, and that next year, in addition to bringing back 13 returning players, we're going to have 2 players who are really known not just in this conference but in the basketball world. ... It's going to be a scary sight."
HAMPTON GETS SALARY HIKE
Recently hired UAPB football Coach Alonzo Hampton has been approved for a salary in excess of the line-item maximum established by law during the UA System Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday at the UA Medical Sciences campus in Little Rock.
Hampton, who was hired in December, can make up to $204,212 per year, more than $39,000 more than the salary in his original contract. He succeeded Doc Gamble, who was fired during the middle of a 3-9 season.
UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander recommended the salary raise to the board. UAPB began spring practice Tuesday and will continue it today, Friday, March 28, 30 and 31; April 1 (scrimmage), 4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 17, 19 and 22. The last day is 150th Founder's Day Saturday.
Regular practices are closed to the public.