After a grueling 28-game regular season that had its ups and downs, the most important games of the Elon University women’s basketball team’s season have yet to be played.
The Phoenix will play Appalachian State University at 2:15 p.m. Saturday, March 8, at Kimmel Arena in Asheville to open the Southern Conference Tournament. The Phoenix will play as the No. 5 seed, while the Mountaineers are ranked as the No. 4 seed.
Elon and Appalachian State split both regular season meetings this year, with Elon winning a 66-54 decision Jan. 17 in Alumni Gym and dropping a 71-60 game Feb. 17 in Boone.
Sophomore Jessica Farmer scored a career-high 19 points in Elon’s Jan. 17 win, and the Phoenix shot 47 percent from the field. But it was a different story for the Phoenix Feb. 17 as the team struggled to a 37 percent shooting clip in the loss.
The key to stopping the Mountaineers is to stop its most effective player, SoCon scoring leader Maryah Sydnor, who averages 19.5 points per game. The junior dropped 16 and 21 points on the Phoenix in the team’s two regular season matchups.
Awaiting either the Phoenix or the Mountaineers in a possible semifinal matchup is the winner of the No. 1 seed vs. No. 8/9 seed game. The likely winner of this game, top-seeded University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, earned a perfect 18-0 in the Southern Conference, and 25-3 overall. The Mocs, winners of two of the past four SoCon Tournament championships, defeated Elon by 23 and 14 points, respectively, in two games this season.
When asked about the possibility of playing Chattanooga in the tournament, senior guard Kelsey Harris said it’s something the team won’t worry about until it has to.
“Seedings are what they are,” Harris said. “I still think that even though playing [Chattanooga] will be tough, we have the tools and the personnel to beat them. So I think we’re just going to approach it like any other game.”
In Elon’s most recent game against Chattanooga Feb. 28, the Phoenix started out fast and trailed by just two points at halftime. Elon led by as many as seven points in the first half of that game, proving they can compete with the best.
Freshman guard Lauren Brown said that, in the end, it all comes down to how much your team wants to win.
“There aren’t any teams that are easy games — every game you have to come prepared, ready to play,” Brown said. “With the way teams are playing right now, whoever plays the hardest is going to win the game.”
Harris echoed her teammates’ responses, saying that this time of year, seedings can be thrown out the window.
“No matter what our seeding is, everybody still has to win all their games in order to win the championship,” Harris said. “It’s a new day for us. We just have to go out there and play.”
Harris looked to for leadership
Harris knows she’ll be relied on for leadership as the only senior on Elon’s roster and given her bevy of experience in the Southern Conference Tournament, a three-games-in-three-days gauntlet that most of her younger teammates have yet to deal with.
“It’s hard,” Harris said. “Especially when they realize the number of games we play in a short amount of days. I know in previous years, the No. 1 seed has been knocked off by No. 3 and 4 seeds because they were in better shape. You have to have a mentally tough mindset to win in the end.”
One thing that will help the Phoenix combat the tournament’s demanding schedule is the quality of depth head coach Charlotte Smith has at her disposal. All 12 players on the roster have appeared in at least eight games, and nine of those 12 have started at least three games, including 55 combined starts from freshmen and sophomores.
“It’s going to help us a lot,” Harris said. “It’s going to give us an edge on the competition. Just knowing that we are deep and that we can rotate a lot of players in and out will be our strong point.”
As her record-breaking, storybook career with Elon winds down, and she and her teammates head to her final conference tournament, Harris hopes to conclude her career with a trophy in hand and a bid to the NCAA tournament, which she’s never played in.
“From the beginning of the year, we’ve had the goal to win the Southern Conference championship,” Harris said. “The tournament championship, regular season championship, everything. “
“It’s a new season,” Harris said. “It’s a new day. No matter what our seed is, everyone still has to win their games in order to win the championship.”
Brown agreed with her teammate’s sentiment, stressing the need for a focused mindset going into a do-or-die, single elimination SoCon tournament.
“We want to play hard for [Harris],” Brown said. “We’re really playing for things other than just ourselves at this point. We want to give everything we have.”
The greatest obstacle for Elon in the SoCon Tournament may not be any of the other nine teams competing in Asheville, N.C. With just three wins in 14 tries away from Alumni Gym in 2013-14, The Phoenix will have to figure out how to win on the road.
Brown said focusing too much on where the game is is an unnecessary distraction.
“We have struggled [on the road] in the past, but we’re trying to take the approach where any gym is a home gym,” Brown said.
“We do shoot-a-rounds before the game, but it’s really mental,” she said. “If we just have that mentality where we play with the amount of intensity we bring into home games and take it anywhere we go, that’s really what we are focused on.”
Elon’s road struggles were not limited to trips outside the Tar Heel State. Elon lost at SoCon cellar-dweller the University of North Carolina at Greensboro by double figures Jan. 4, followed up by another loss to in-state opposition Davidson College a week later. The Phoenix did manage to beat Western Carolina University on the road, but was unable to sweep its mountain road trip by falling to Appalachian State by 11 on Feb. 17.
Elon also lost its only neutral site matchup of the year. A double-digits defeat at the hands of Mercer University capped off a Thanksgiving Tournament at Vanderbilt University. For Harris, the conference tournament will not just be difficult for Elon.
“In tournament time, everybody is traveling to a certain extent,” Harris said, “Everybody’s in a new environment.”
The Gastonia, N.C. native said she hopes the team can rally behind fans who make the trip with them.
“Nobody has that home court at Asheville, [but] we will have our fans come out and travel to support us,” Harris said.
The Phoenix has managed to beat some of the best teams in the conference at Alumni Gym, including a double-digit comeback against Davidson. But bad losses on the road have plagued much of Elon’s season. Only first-place Chattanooga has a winning record on the road this year. In addition, no team has a record better than .500 on neutral courts, leaving the door wide open for Elon to regain its stride away from home.