All the Hornets really needed was a heavy roster shakeup that included an addition of NCAA transfer Sarah Ogoke. Behind senior point guard Ashlie Billingslea — the only returning player from last year’s team — they went back to their old winning ways.
Southern Poly, ranked No. 26 in the national poll, is 25-5 and coming off a runner-up finish in the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament. The seventh-seeded Hornets are hoping to improve on that mark when they face second-seeded Vanguard (Calif.) University in the first round of the NAIA tournament Wednesday at Frankfort, Ky.
“It’s a new experience as far as dealing with different teammates and personalities, but I’m comfortable in my role as leader,” said Billingslea, who averages 18.1 points a game. “They back me up 100 percent, which tells me they are confident in me. I’m confident about this team and what we can do.”
All the new faces on the team picked up on coach Laquanda Dawkins’ way of doing things, very quickly — otherwise, they would not have gotten off to a 10-0 start. The third-year coach emphasizes defense — particularly the half-court trap — and uses it to force turnovers and score quick points.
Billingslea, who her college career at South Carolina, is responsible for many of the turnovers Southern Poly has forced. She leads with 103 steals and counting.
Ogoke can also force turnovers as well. She may be a distant second to Billingslea in steals with 75, but Ogoke is leading the team with 18.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
Despite having a remarkable record, the Hornets did have their moments of adversity. After winning their first 10 games, they hit a small rough patch when they lost two of three to start the calendar year.
The losses had to do with a combination of injuries, illnesses and players no longer being eligible for academic reasons, and Southern Poly’s 12-player roster was reduced to six at one point. During that stage, the team lost its focus a bit, and lost to Faulkner and Brewton-Parker over an eight-day span.
“We took a couple of losses and it showed that we weren’t unstoppable,” Dawkins said. “We had to pick it back up on defense and get together. We were playing six people at a time, getting everyone in where we fit, and we stood together through adversity.”
The Hornets, who now have eight players, had to make defensive adjustments when their roster got smaller. Once they figured it all out, they embarked on a nine-game winning streak that included a 70-69 win at home Jan. 26 over then-No. 6 Lee.
After Lee rallied from nine points down with 6 minutes left to play, Arnissa Galloway accounted for the game-winning layup in the waning seconds on an assist by Billingslea.
But Southern Poly couldn’t solve Lee down the stretch. The Hornets have lost twice to the Flames since, including the SSAC championship game.
Now they must look ahead and try to beat a Vangaurd team that’s just as talented. The Lions (23-3) are the champions of the Golden State Athletic Conference.
“I know that (Vanguard) is scrappy and will push the ball,” Billingslea said. “We have to play two steps ahead of them. We know it will be competitive game, and we’re ready.”
Southern Poly will continue to rely on Billingslea, Ogoke and the first-year players that helped the Hornets get into the tournament. Erica Turner is averaging 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. Galloway is also averaging double figures with 11.2 and pulls down close to nine boards.