By Dakota Busch
The University of Tampa women’s basketball team ended their undefeated season (7-0) as Sunshine State Conference (SSC) Champions after defeating Palm Beach Atlantic 64-50.
Women’s basketball dealt with uncertainty all year until their schedule was finally set to begin on Wednesday, February 17. However, due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing in other teams, their first four games were canceled. This led them only to have a regular-season of just four games.
Senior shooting guard, Julia Ingram, said it was challenging to stay motivated and keep her team motivated.
“It was harder to stay motivated than focused,” said Ingram. “When we were in practice, we were focused, but we had to live with the constant uncertainty of not knowing when we would play and if we would even get a season for much of the year.”
The SSC tournament was set as it is every year, although the draw was decided at random due to lack of regular-season games. The Spartans defeated Florida Southern, St. Leo, and PBA all to win the title. Because of scheduling conflicts, all the games Tampa played were surprisingly at home.
Junior guard and forward Melijah Sullivan scored nine points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals in the championship game. Sullivan was also crowned SSC tournament Most Valuable Player. She said the team’s hard work is what motivated them in their final match.
“We went through so much just to be able to play in the SSC Championships. We Practiced for seven months through so much uncertainty just to get to this specific day,” said Sullivan. “That mindset really set the tone for the conference and to win the ball game.”
Aliyah Abney scored nine points, two rebounds, four assists, and three steals in the championship game. Abney said winning the SSC title was a fundamental goal she set for herself and the team to accomplish.
“My mindset was to do something that I’ve never done before. I’ve never won an actual SSC tournament championship since I’ve been at UT, so it was pretty special,” said Abney.
Starting strong was a game plan for the Spartans in their final game. They successfully executed this plan and shot a dominant 69% from the field in the opening quarter. Solid defense was also crucial on the way to defeat the PBA Sailfish.
“The first quarter, in general, was crucial. We came out of the gate extremely strong, and that carried us the rest of the game,” said Ingram. “PBA is always known for making comebacks when they are behind, so for us to put them away early was important.
Basketball is usually played from November through March, but because of COVID-19, UT did not play their first game until Wednesday, March 3. Abney said the frustration of canceled games made their title even more rewarding.
“After we won, I felt a breath of fresh air. I felt both happy and relieved at the same time,” said Abney. “I was glad we had finally accomplished what we’ve been working for, and the stress we faced these past months was worth it.”
Women’s basketball also remains the only high-risk sport to remain COVID-free from September until March. Sullivan is hoping that this would be the last time the SSC tournament would be played through a pandemic.
“After we won, it felt like the COVID year is now sealed and done with, and hopefully, everything goes back to normal next season,” said Sullivan.
Ingram was able to end her college basketball career with the conference’s top award. She said how this particular group of girls made the win even more special.
“There was much hugging and crying after the game because we had been through a long season and came out on top,” said Ingram. “Our chemistry on and off the court made this championship that much sweeter. I love this team so much, and I’m so happy to win a conference championship with these girls!”
The Spartans 2021 Conference Championship win is the sixth time Tampa has captured the award. They also won in 2000, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2016. The Spartans’ most recent win in 2016 was also against the Panthers, 68-59, in March of 2016.
The 2021 Spartans were able to accomplish something no other UT women’s basketball team has been able to do; have an undefeated season and win an SSC Championship during a pandemic.