Albany State women leaning on faith, unity for NCAA Tournament opener

The Lady Rams open the NCAA Division II Tournament against Delta State

The No. 5 seed Albany State women’s basketball team enters today’s game against No. 4 Delta State with a 21-6 record after one of its best regular seasons in school history, but the Lady Rams have faith that there is something bigger in store for them this season. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

The No. 5 seed Albany State women’s basketball team enters today’s game against No. 4 Delta State with a 21-6 record after one of its best regular seasons in school history, but the Lady Rams have faith that there is something bigger in store for them this season. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When the Lady Rams step on the court tonight for their NCAA Division II Tournament opener, they will do so in faith.

Faith in God, in each other and in a dream.

“But most importantly in God,” Albany State senior Kourtney Alexander said.

It’s a credence the Lady Rams don’t shy away from when asked what has made this season so special, and it’s one they talk about boldly when asked what will make the difference in today’s game against Delta State.

Freshman Tip Holston calls the Lady Rams the “most-praying team in all of college basketball,” and the players believe it’s those prayers that have carried them on this season’s remarkable run.

“We pray before every practice. We pray after every practice,” Alexander said. “Every time we have a bad practice or a bad game, we pray even harder and longer.”

The prayers aren’t for victories.

“They are for guidance,” Alexander said.

And the Lady Rams (21-6) have been guided to new heights this year, enjoying one of the best regular seasons in school history, which they parleyed into what is believed to be the program’s first at-large bid to the national tournament.

The next step on their journey is today’s regional opener against Delta State, a team that carries one of Division II women’s basketball’s best traditions and a team that Albany State is winless against in 15 tries.

The No. 5 seed Lady Rams — who are making their first tournament appearance since 1998 — are certain underdogs against the No. 4 seed Lady Statesmen, who have made 12 Elite Eight appearances since 1986 and have won six national championships.

ASU and Delta State have played three times in the National Tournament, and the Lady Statesmen won each game by at least 30 points, but Skinner believes his 2013-14 team has a chance to give ASU one of its biggest athletic victories in history.

“Would I be totally surprised if we won? No, because I know we can,” said head coach Robert Skinner, whose Lady Rams cracked the South Region rankings this season for the first time since Skinner took over the program 22 years ago. “I think if we can play our type of game and shoot the ball very well and go out with confidence and keep our faith where it should be, we will play them tough.”

The Lady Rams have given Skinner every reason to believe.

They had won six straight before blowing a five-point lead in the final 35 seconds against Benedict in Saturday’s SIAC championship game and have only lost one game by more than four points since the middle of November.

Albany State has been one of the hottest teams in the South Region this year thanks to a trio of stars: Holston, Alexander and Keidra Green, who all average between 13 and 14 points per game. Holston, a freshman post, sat out last season rehabbing her knee after ACL surgery; Alexander, the team’s top 3-point threat, is one of five seniors on the team and the longest-tenured starter; and Green, a former Crisp County star, joined the team in May after transferring from Florida State College at Jacksonville along with former Westover star Ieshia Young.

Holston, Alexander and Green — along with point guard Mecca Frost, who Skinner calls the motor of the team — have been the backbone of the Lady Rams all year, but it wasn’t until the third week of the season when ASU swept Georgia Southwestern and Columbus State in the SIAC/PBC Challenge that Skinner fully realized their potential.

“When they did that, I said to myself, ‘We might have a pretty good team here,’ ” Skinner said. “I saw something in the team then. I saw energy. I saw commitment. I saw team unity. I saw some kids loving to play basketball.”

Pretty soon, the players started to see it, too.

“I could tell by the way we played at practice,” Alexander said. “I was like, ‘OK, we have a shot at this.’ Then we actually started playing games, and the more and more we played the more and more I felt good about it.”

By early January the Lady Rams had caught fire and ended the regular season with 13 victories in their last 15 games. Their identity became defense, and they held SIAC opponents below their season scoring average in 16 of 17 games.

“They bought in to what we do defensively, I think they have a clear understanding of helping each other out on defense,” Skinner said. “And defense wins championships. I was a hard sell. It’s hard to sell anybody on defense, but they bought into it.”

Skinner also sold them on the importance of faith, something the three-sport ASU coach also makes the cornerstone of his volleyball and softball teams.

“It’s hard for me to sell this to the media. It’s hard for me to sell this to outside people. But when you get a group of people working for the same goal and relying on Christ to get them to that spot and knowing that there’s nothing that God can’t do, you can do a lot of good things,” said Skinner, whose team attends Fellowship of Christian Athletes services together on Monday nights and then attends church together on Sundays.

“I have all the belief, all the faith, all the trust that God is going to do some great things for us. It may not be winning a championship. It may not be winning a basketball game. But he is going to do some great things for us.”

Skinner said it was that faith that helped the Lady Rams recover from Saturday’s devastating loss to Benedict.

“I finally got them to understand that it’s OK to lose the conference championship. You are still going to be given something bigger,” he said. “The prize is much bigger than the conference championship. It’s OK to lose it, but you need to keep your eyes on the big picture. God wants more from us than just a conference championship.”

Skinner and the Lady Rams are hoping “more” means a deep run in the national tournament, which Green said would change her life.

“It would be an amazing feeling, especially with it being my first year being here,” Green said. “I would still have two more years, so imagine what we can do after that.”

Of course, Delta State, which is 24-5 and ranked 15th in the country, is the first of many mountains to climb during a postseason run. The Lady Statesmen, who are making their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 14 years and are 9-2 in first-round games during that span, are led by point guard Chelsey Rhodes (14.4 ppg) and 6-foot-1 post Seneca Walton (14.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg).

“Delta State is a very tough opponent to get in the first round. If they are the No. 4 seed, I don’t want to see 1, 2 and 3,” Skinner said. “But I think we are going to give them a good game.”

As soon as he finished the sentence, he changed it.

“No, I hope and pray we are going to give them a good game.”