The Flames, 20-7 and ranked No. 15 in this week’s NAIA poll, will face red-hot Faulkner University when they open tourney play at Darlington School in Rome, Ga., Thursday at 8 p.m. A win over the Eagles would likely pit Lee against No. 2 Shorter University on Friday at 8 p.m., and if they upset the top-seeded Hawks, the Flames would likely see No. 3 Southern Polytechnic State University or Loyola (New Orleans) in the final. No other NAIA team will have to whip the No. 2 and No. 3 clubs to earn a conference title.
“It might be easier to reach the Final Four of the NAIA National Tournament than win our conference tournament,” said Brown as he pondered the bracket. “Faulkner and coach Jim Sanderson have done a remarkable job of turning their seasons around.”
The Eagles, 16-12, got off to an 0-6 start in SSAC play and some three weeks ago it appeared they might not make the 10-team tournament field. But coach Sanderson, who is in his 18th season at the Montgomery, Ala.-based school, regrouped his Eagles and they went flying by Belhaven, Mobile and William Carey to nab the second seed in the West.
The Flames and Eagles faced off on Dec. 19 and Lee claimed a 68-52 win. Faulkner, a national championship winner in 2000-01, trails Lee in the overall series, 13-5.
The two top finishers in the SSAC tourney will earn automatic bids to the NAIA National in Kansas City on March 14-20. Shorter is the top seed in the East followed by Southern Poly, Lee, Emmanuel and Brewton-Parker. Loyola is best in the West. Faulkner, Belhaven, Mobile and William Carey round out the field.
Men’s play begins at Darlington on Wednesday and continues Thursday. All play shifts to the Forum in downtown Rome on Friday and Saturday. For more tourney information, check the SSAC website.
Lady Flames playing
for pride, ranking
With a bid to its eighth straight NAIA National Tournament already tucked away, the Lee women’s basketball team will travel to Rome, Ga., on Thursday in hopes of adding the SSAC tourney title to its already secured regular-season crown.
With 15 members on the SSAC women’s side, the conference receives three automatic bids to the NAIA National Tournament. Lee owns one of the bids and Belhaven (Miss.), winners of the West, secured the other. The third will go to the tournament champion. If Lee or Belhaven claims the crown, the two losers in the semifinal contests will enter into a special one-game playoff.
“We’re looking forward to starting postseason and seeing how our team responds to playing teams with their backs to the wall,” said coach Marty Rowe as his 28-2 and his fifth-ranked Lady Flames went back to work after the stinging defeat at Shorter University last Thursday evening.
Lee will open tourney play at 5 p.m. on Thursday at the Forum in Rome, Ga. Southern Wesleyan and William Carey will tangle on Wednesday at 2 p.m. for the right to advance and challenge the Lady Flames. The women’s semifinal is slated for 6 p.m. Friday and the championship will be decided on Saturday at 5 p.m. All women’s games will be played at the downtown Forum.
“SWU and William Carey both finished the year playing very well,” noted Rowe. “Whoever wins that game will be a tough opening round opponent, but that is par for the course this time of year. We are not going to play anyone in this tournament that is not capable of beating us. We’ll need to play well to advance.”
The Lady Flames are in the same bracket as a very good Loyola (La.) team. A win over SWU or Williams Carey would set up a key semifinal game. Another interesting semifinal battle could be Shorter against Belhaven, the No. 1 team out of the West.
Rowe sees this year’s event as having the makings of a great tournament. “I don’t think there is a clear favorite. It just depends on which teams step up to meet the challenge. There should be great first and second-round matchups. I look for the entire event to be very exciting.
“I think this tourney means a lot to our team,” added Rowe. “We take pride in representing our school and this is another opportunity for us to compete and try to improve before the national tournament.
Lee, Shorter, Emmanuel, Southern Wesleyan and Brewton-Parker will represent the East side of the SSAC. Belhaven, Loyola, Faulkner, William Carey and Auburn Montgomery are the West squads earning a berth.