By Melinda Waldrop
For the TimesDaily
DAVIE, Fla. — Last year, North Alabama made its first Division II NCAA Tournament appearance since 1994, only to see its postseason short-circuited by conference rival Delta State.
After sweeping the Statesmen in two regular-season games for the first time in 19 seasons, the Lions had reason to believe this year would be different.
UNA committed 25 turnovers, leading to 23 Delta State points, to fall 51-41 in South Region play at the Don Taft University Center at Nova Southeastern.
“We just didn’t give ourselves enough possessions,” said Terry Fowler, named the Gulf South Conference coach of the year after leading the Lions to their eighth 20-win season in school history. “We don’t really pressure and deny like they do, so it’s difficult sometimes to create those situations in practice. We just weren’t strong enough with the basketball.”
Delta State (20-9) opened up an early 10-point advantage as UNA made just three field goals in the game’s first 13 minutes. The Lions (20-11) rallied with a 9-0 run, capped by Delisa Madry’s three-point play, to close within 16-15 with 4:43 left before halftime.
The Statesmen closed the first half, though, with a 7-0 run, then outscored UNA 5-2 in the first four minutes of the second to go up 28-17.
“They came in thinking they were going to be us, and we couldn’t let that happen - not a third time,” said DSU 6-foot-1 center Seneca Walton, whose driving layup pushed the lead to 30-17 with 14:22 to play.
The Lions, who shot 45 percent to DSU’s 27.6, fought back with a 10-2 run to close within 32-27 with 9:10 left. Eight of those points came from sophomore forward Corinne White, who averages 4.5 points but had 10 on five consecutive baskets starting at the 13:35 mark of the second half.
“I knew we need to make some baskets, and my teammates were able to get me the ball in open area,” White said.
The Lions could get no closer than five, though, and DSU’s lead grew to double-digits again on Chadisty Hickman’s pull-up jumper with 6:15 remaining.
UNA made one last push, cutting the deficit to 39-34 on Sarah Bailey’s three-point play with 5:25 to play and stopping the Lady Statesmen on their next possession. But Brittany Roberts stripped Lauren Faris on the other end and raced in for a layup and a foul, touching off a decisive 7-0 spurt.
“They really weren’t going to let us get the ball on the inside, because that’s been our strong point all year,” Fowler said. “I thought our perimeters kind of forced the ball, (and) we probably should have taken some more perimeter shots to loosen up the defense.”
Junior forward Mekena Randle, a first-team all-conference selection after leading the Lions with 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, was held to six points. Fellow forward Nichelle Fillmore, averaging 10.6 points, had just four.
Walton led DSU, the regular-season GSC champions who will face the winner of the Alabama-Huntsville/Tuskegee game on Saturday, with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
UNA returned just one starter from last season and was picked to finish fifth in the conference. Instead, led by Randle, a transfer from D-I Arkansas State, they went 12-6 to finish second in the league.
“From day one, pickup (games), I felt like this was a great team, so I didn’t really see what people were saying,” Randle said. “What they had to say about them didn’t really faze this team. I felt like they were going to come out and prove to other people that they can play.”