Basketball teams enter GSC tournament with high stakes and high hopes
As of Saturday, Feb. 17, following the men’s game against Delta State, both the Flames and Lady Flames basketball teams have clinched spots in the Gulf South Conference (GSC) Tournament. This will be the first GSC Tournament appearance in program history for the men’s team and will mark the third consecutive season in the tournament for the women.
Since the GSC expanded to include Lee University teams in 2013, the men’s team has gradually worked its way up the ranks. Starting nearly at the bottom in their first season of conference play, the Flames have consistently fought to improve, bringing diligent and motivated mindsets to the court when head coach Bubba Smith came to Lee last season. This mentality was expressed by senior Flame Levi Woods, who has played with the team since 2014.
"I think our biggest strength is how hard we play and how great our team chemistry is,” Woods said. “Every guy on this team and staff, even the managers, comes to work and gets better every day.”
While the team missed the tournament last year by just one win, their hard work has paid off as they have secured their place in the tournament at the end of this month. Woods credits the team’s consistent betterment of their character and, in recent seasons, Coach Smith’s influence, expressing that the two combined will allow for the continued flourishing of the team.
“We have a lot of high-character guys that are very competitive and will do whatever it takes to not let their teammates down,” Woods said. “Coach Smith is building a great culture here, and this program is going to do great things. I’m very happy I get to be a part of the start of it.”
On the women’s side, the Lady Flames entered the GSC at the top, ranking first in the conference during their first season of play and fourth during their second season. Unfortunately, this success was hampered as Lee was ineligible for postseason.
Despite this hindrance, the team continued their strong gameplay into the present season, and 2018 will mark their third year participating in the tournament. Both times previously, Lee was defeated in the semifinals, losing their chance for the championship. The team overtook West Florida in the 2016 tournament only to lose to Union in the following game. However, the Lady Flames retaliated in 2017 when they crushed Union in the quarterfinals. Lee’s team was then booted out by Valdosta State, trailing the reigning champions by only 3 points.
The team’s steady success, according to senior Shelby Brown, is due to the Lady Flames’ consistency and drive.
“One of our strengths is our depth as a team. Coming off the bench, we are just as good as those starting. Another is our unity as a team on and off the court,” Brown said. “We are always pushing one another to be better. I think we are also resilient as a team. When we are coming back from a loss or down in a game, we don't fold or give up but continue to fight through the ups and downs of any game.”
Building upon the experience from previous years, the men’s team has greatly improved their record. The Flames went 7-15 the previous two seasons, and they currently hold a record of 10-9 with one game to go before moving on to the tournament. The team will face Shorter University for their final match, who they defeated in January by 21 points. Assistant coach Cole Rose expressed the team’s emphasis on sharpening their game, commending the players for their performances.
“The focus has been steady the entire season, and that’s just constant improvement,” Coach Rose said. “Through the grind of the season, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in wins and losses, but our guys have done a really good job this year of staying focused every day on what we need to do to improve.”
Coach Rose continued to stress the importance of the team’s defensive role. While the Flames' victories showcase their capability on the offensive side, the team’s exceptional guarding has been crucial to fending off their opponents.
“For the most part, I think our guys have brought a defensive effort and attention to detail that has kept us competitive in every game and really helped us down the stretch,” Coach Rose said. “We’ve still got room to improve this year on that end, but the games we’ve guarded really well have tended to go in our favor.”
The Lady Flames have similarly focused on approaching each game with a desire to improve. While their record remains comparable to previous seasons, the team continues to fight for excellence as they look to the upcoming tournament.
“Our focus is just trying to improve daily and trying to become the best team possible down the stretch,” head coach Marty Rowe said.
The team has held their third-place ranking of last season with one more match to go before the GSC tournament against Shorter, who they previously overtook by 16 points. Though statistics do not differ vastly from last season, Coach Rowe conveyed the team’s internal improvement, reflecting Shelby Brown’s statement concerning the depth of the team.
Looking ahead, the GSC Tournament will commence on Tuesday, Feb. 27, in Birmingham, Alabama, following Lee’s games against Shorter University on Thursday, Feb. 22. While the brackets are not yet set, if the standings remain where they are, the men’s team will face Christian Brothers—against whom they have one loss and one win. The women’s team will oppose West Georgia, who holds one of the Lady Flames’ five losses. As the teams move forward, their focus remains on the game at hand.
“It's very difficult to win in this league,” Coach Rowe said, “especially advancing in our tournament. Hopefully we can take the experiences we've had the last couple of years to our advantage, but honestly, we just have to play good basketball and see what happens.”