March 17, 2011 8:25:00 AM
The 2010-11 season was a step forward in so many ways for the University of Alabama women''s basketball team.
The Crimson Tide (16-14) snapped a string of eight consecutive losing seasons and recorded their most overall and Southeastern Conference victories (five) in a campaign since 2001-02.
That season is a great reference point because until this season it marked the last time Alabama had played after the SEC tournament.
At 7:06 tonight, Alabama will change that when it takes on the University of Memphis (21-12) in the first round of the Women''s National Invitation Tournament.
"I think it''s a great step for our program," Alabama third-year coach Wendell Hudson said. "We''re really looking forward to it."
Alabama is one of nine SEC teams that have "gone dancing." Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Georgia will begin play this weekend in the NCAA tournament, while South Carolina, which won its opening game Wednesday night, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, and Florida will play in the 64-team WNIT.
LSU declined a bid to the WNIT, while Mississippi State and Ole Miss weren''t invited to a postseason tournament.
Alabama won five of its last eight games to put itself in position to play past a 60-36 loss to LSU in the opening round of the SEC tournament on March 3. After going 0-9 in January, the Crimson Tide played its best basketball of the season in February, going 5-2 and earning victories at Mississippi State, at Auburn, and at Arkansas. They also beat Florida and Ole Miss at home.
Hudson said the opportunity to play in the WNIT will help a blossoming new attitude in the program continue to grow.
"You have to expect to play this time of year," Hudson said. "Now we know why all the hard work has gone into our play. When we talk about the little bitty things that make a difference in the game, they are going to be more important to the returning players."
The chance to play in the WNIT also allows seniors Tierney Jenkins, LaToya King, Varisia Raffington, and Katie Hancock (knee injury) to experience the postseason for the first time. While those seniors weren''t able to push the squad to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998-99, they helped raise the bar for a program that had won one and four SEC games the past two seasons.
Tonight''s game is especially sweet for Jenkins, who Wednesday was named to the State Farm Coaches'' All-Region Team. She is one of 52 players in the running for the 2011 State Farm Coaches'' All-America Team.
On Tuesday, Jenkins was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press. She leads the team in scoring (15.4 points per game), rebounding (10.7), steals (2.8), and blocked shots (0.9). Her scoring average is the highest since Dominique Canty had 19.7 during the 1998-99 season.
Hudson hopes Jenkins'' maturity and the fact the team has advanced to the WNIT will serve as motivation for players like freshman Kaneisha Horn, the school''s first McDonald''s High School All-American, to reach even higher.
Hudson said the team continued to practice after the SEC tournament. He said he noticed the energy level in training picked up as the announcement of postseason bids approached. He said it is difficult to describe what kind of impact playing in March will have on the program, but he hopes the Crimson Tide will be able to build tonight on their play down the stretch.
Hudson talks from experience. He was a member of the Alabama men''s basketball varsity team from 1971-73 and played on the 1973 squad that advanced to the NIT Final Four, the first postseason appearance for the program. The Crimson Tide won the SEC championship the following season, and reached the NCAA tournament in 1975 for the first time.
"We want to continue the mentality of what it takes to keep winning," said Hudson, who said the NIT was a "springboard" to the men''s success. "I think that is a valuable expectation, especially where our program is and that we get in the habit of not expecting spring break and expecting not to be in NCAA play. We want to continue the positive things going on in our program."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.