The start of the women’s basketball season is a little more than a month away, and the UT women are hard at work. The Spartans are coming off a tremendous season in which they won the SSC championship in tremendous fashion and set a school record with 24 wins. In his fifth year, head coach Tom Jessee has this team poised to continue their superb play in the 2006-2007 season.
“This was all part of our four-year plan. A lot of the players we have right now were the same ones we had the last couple of season when we weren’t doing so well,” he says. “We just kept saying to them ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.'”
The patience paid off with the team turning in one of the best seasons in school history. All their hard work and effort led them to the championship game on March 5. The Spartans were set to face the seventh-ranked Rollins College Tars. Rollins also was in the midst of one of their best seasons. They had dominated the competition and came into the game against Tampa at a staggering 28-0. Tampa was a clear underdog, but the Spartans responded with one of their best-played games of the season. Behind the 18 points from guard Tay Mathis and the suffocating defense of center Sheena Walton and her eight blocks, Tampa won 56-47, earning them an SSC Championship. It was a game in which encapsulated just how tough the team was, according to Jessee.
“It was real important to us. Rollins had come in with the chance to have an undefeated season. That’s something that no one had done. I was proud of our team that we were able to stop that.”
The Spartans enter this upcoming season with the majority of players from the championship team. The returning players are led by Walton, Mackey and forward Erica Woodward. Coach Jessee noted the advantage of having a talented group of experienced players.
“We have a lot of veterans. They know and understand the system. It makes for a much easier process.”
Walton may be the best among a group of talented players. She is coming off a historic season. She was SSC Defensive Player of the Year and also shattered the school record for blocks, finishing with 105. She was also the leading scorer for the Spartans with 14.8 points per game. In a time when most players are more interested in their offensive play, Walton understands the importance of defense.
“Most games are won with defense,” she says. “If you can shut down your opponent defensively, you have a chance to win. Simple as that.”
Coach Jessee recognizes the importance of Walton on the team.
“She demands a double or a triple team. And she’s not a stat-watcher, but she is a stat filler.”
Among the areas that Jessee looks to improve entering the season is defense. The team was among the best last season, but he feels they can be better.
“We were among the top five last season. This season I want us to be at the top.”
He is also stressing the importance of building depth. The development of players such as guard Alexa Kane, who was impressive in her freshman year, and guard Hailee Sullivan could go a long way in that area.
Walton understands the tough road ahead for the defending champs.
“We are the challenge. Every one is going to be out to beat Tampa.”
The Spartans have a team that is built to accept that challenge.