As the Southern women’s basketball team sat on the six hour bus ride up to Jonesboro, Arkansas, they asked themselves one simple question.
“Why not me?”
Southern makes the trip up to Arkansas State for its first postseason appearance since 2011 when it takes on the Red Wolves in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday.
No player left in the program remains from the last time the Lady Jaguars (19-11) reached the postseason, in part due to this being the first season in two years they’ve been eligible to make such an appearance after being placed on academic probation.
On the other side of the court, Arkansas State makes its third consecutive trip to the WNIT, and even Southern coach Sandy Pugh has to admit the Red Wolves (26-5) should probably be in the NCAA tournament.
But despite the odds, Southern’s original question remains.
“We have a good game plan, and it’s just about the kids going in with the mindset of, ‘I’m here and why not me?’” Southern coach Sandy Pugh said. “I think they feel good.”
As the only person in the program to have reached the postseason, Pugh knows best what playing on the national stage can be like.
She’s tried to prepare them for what to expect in Jonesboro by impressing on them that this isn’t just another trip across the state to Grambling or another Southwestern Athletic Conference game.
Pugh said her team is walking into the proverbial “buzzsaw” on Thursday, and they need to play their best in order to win.
The Red Wolves are in the middle of arguably the best season in program history. They’ve already set the school record for wins in a season and lead the Sun Belt Conference with a 14.6-point win margin, more than doubling its next closest opponent.
For Southern to have any chance of winning, Pugh said, they’ll need to defend well along the perimeter and be able to contest a taller Arkansas State team.
The young Lady Jaguars will have their hands full with the senior-laden Red Wolves, who are No. 25 in the country with 45 percent shooting from the field, including 35.8 percent clip from 3-point range, which puts them at No. 26 in the nation.
“If you want to play at this level with the big boys and girls, you have to bring it,” Pugh said. “To have this opportunity to play, this is what we live for.”
Southern has seen a drastic improvement over the course of the season after starting with a 3-7 record. Since then, the Lady Jaguars won 16 of their lpast 20 games and moved up to the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s second-highest scoring team at 63.6 points per game.
Pugh isn’t sure if her team’s late-season ascent will be enough, but she’s willing to throw everything she’s got to achieve one of the last unchecked goals she’s set for her career at Southern.
“This is an opportunity for our conference to win its first ever postseason tournament game,” Pugh said. “That was one of my goals coming in here at Southern. I’ve been able to accomplish every other goal I’ve had, except for that one. That’s that one little piece I haven’t been able to crack yet.”