AMERICUS - There are a lot of striking similarities between this year's South Georgia Tech women's basketball team and the 2002-03 Dallas Mavericks.
First, both teams started their seasons 13-0 -- though Dallas went 14-0 before its first loss that year, tied for second best in NBA history.
Second, both teams' star players are much taller than average for their position -- Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-footer, while the Lady Jets' Ophelia "Phe" McMath is 5-10 and has been playing primarily guard this year.
Both squads also have important international role players.
But possibly the biggest similarity between them has yet to be determined. Dallas was one of the last four teams in the playoffs that year, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
The Lady Jets? They're 14-1 and No. 8 in the country halfway through the season -- with big aspirations.
"We started out the season (ranked) in the high 20s. I thought that was kind of a token (ranking), because I really didn't know where we were," said head coach Brandan Harrell, whose team is coming off its best season ever after going 29-7, winning the GJCAA championship and making it to the Sweet 16 at the NJCAA nationals.
Harrell then added: "When we started the season, I had no idea how we'd do. I certainly didn't think we'd be 14-1 at this point. (But) I don't necessarily think the ranking means we're better than we were last year, because we were pretty good last year."
McMath a sophomore from Apopka, Fla., is one of the stars back from last year and leads the team with 20.5 points per game-- No. 11 in the country -- and 10.8 rebounds per game. And just like Nowitzki had a sidekick in Michael Finley, McMath has Shontae McCall, a 6-0 freshman guard and fellow Floridian from Lynn Haven, who averages 11.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
"We had ultra-athletic guards last year, with Monique Willis and Deatric Smith, so we could just make plays at the guard position, but we couldn't make inside plays. And that really caught up with us at the national tournament," Harrell said. "This year, we're not quite as athletic at the guard spot, but we moved Phe there to try to replace some of that athleticism. And with Shontae coming in, she gives us some length and athleticism at the guard spot."
Sophomore centers Miriam Seale, from England, and Naima Garcia, from New Jersey, have also been stepping up lately. Seale scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and Garcia had 8 boards and 4 blocks in the team's 73-64 win against Shelton State on Monday.
Their play -- and the fact McCall and backup point guard Kayla Ritchie are still recovering from surgeries Dec. 15 -- has Harrell optimistic the team will get even better as the year goes on.
"There have been a lot of games (this year) where (Seale) would make a play, and you'd be like 'Wow!.' That's the kind of stuff she needs to be doing all the time," Harrell said. "Her and Naima, the way they played this weekend gives me hope that, if they will keep competing like that, we'll continue to get better. ... I need them to help score (some points)."
The Steve Nash of the team, sophomore point guard Brittany Mills, will get them the ball, as she averages 4.1 assists per game, No. 5 in the GCAA, right behind McCall (4.5) and McMath (4.3). All three are also ranked in the Top 4 in the region in steals.
"Naima Garcia, if she keeps rebounding balls we'll be good, and Brittany Mills, she's doing her job," said McMath, who played flag football in high school. "(Shontae and Miriam are also doing their thing). When the starting five come in double-digits, nobody can stop us."
But it's not all about the O.
After all, the team only gives up 48.7 points per contest, No. 3 in the country.
"I'm a defensive guy. That's why (our first loss of the season Sunday night' to St. Petersburg) drove me nuts, that we gave up (that many) points," Harrell said. "We spend 75 percent of our practices on defense. I think that's where it starts and gives you a chance to win. ... I think the better you are defensively, the easier things become offensively."
That's been the case so far, as the Lady Jets win by an average of 21 points per game, second in the region behind Waycross' 22.6.
And speaking of conference opponents, there won't any cake-walks, as the last-place team (Andrew College) is a respectable 7-8 on the season.
"Our conference is going to be pretty tough," Harrell said. "Middle Georgia (9-3) is supposed to get a couple players back after the break. Darton's (10-7) going to compete -- they can play with anybody, especially in their gym -- and I think Perimeter (10-4) is certainly at the top of our league this year. You also got East Georgia (11-4) -- a new program -- which we ended up stressing out (a win earlier in the season) against them. Atlanta Metro (8-4) is also very scrappy, and we play them (today at 2 p.m.).
"Our goal right now is just to be one of the top four teams that host the first round (of the playoffs)."
Again, the Mavericks were one of the top four teams in 2002-03. So will that be the final similarity between them and the Lady Jets?
The players hope not.
"I'm especially hungry. I think we all are," said McCall, who went to state three times in high school and lost every time by just a few points. "That's all we talk about, getting that ring."
Added McMath: "We're going to go all the way this year if we keep our heads together."