Skyhawks flying high
With a starting lineup that includes four freshmen, the University of Tennessee at Martin is not your typical NCAA tournament team. Not only does Tennessee-Martin feature one of the youngest teams in the field, it is also making its first appearance in an event where many teams have long histories.
Case in point: In-state neighbor University of Tennessee is making its 30th NCAA appearance and has been coached since 1974 by Pat Summitt, a Tennessee-Martin alumna.
This year, that changes. Tennessee-Martin, seeded No. 15 in the East Region, will face No. 2 seed Duke (29-3) in a tough first-round matchup in Durham, N.C., on Saturday.
"We're going to have to play an 'A' game for us," second-year UT Martin coach Kevin McMillan said of facing the perennially talented Duke squad. But so far this season, the young Tennessee-Martin team, led by lone senior Alecia Weatherly, has been a quick study.
"We knew they were talented enough, but we didn't know if the maturity would grow fast enough," McMillan said.
The Skyhawks were tested early with 10 road games to start the season, and the young squad managed a respectable 5-5 start. Since then, the Skyhawks (21-10) made school history by winning their first Ohio Valley Conference title and advancing to the NCAA tournament. Summitt played on the Skyhawks' first teams from 1970-74, before the NCAA tournament was established.
McMillan looked close to home in building his team at the west Tennessee school, a 2½-hour drive from Memphis. Starting guard Heather Butler, the nation's leading freshman scorer with 19.1 points per game, played at nearby Gibson County High School and won a state title under McMillan.
Still, it has been Weatherly whom McMillan has leaned on heavily, asking her to lead 13 newcomers, including nine freshmen.
"I told her, you are going to have a different role with the freshmen being the catalysts," McMillan said. "How many seniors would accept it and embrace it? She doesn't care who scores. ... She has put the team ahead of herself."
Last season, Weatherly was the leading scorer with 13.6 points per game. This year, she averaged only 7.3 points. Butler and fellow freshman Jasmine Newsome, who is averaging 17.8 points and is the nation's third-highest freshman scorer, provided the scoring power.
Though her point total is down, Weatherly is the team's key 3-point shooter, making 42.9 percent (24-for-56) from the 3-point line. And the senior, who will work on a master's in education next year, has accepted her role.
"I do anything Coach McMillan needs me to do," she said.
In several late-season games, the experience of Weatherly and the fast-growing maturity of her teammates came in handy. After some midseason games in which the Skyhawks fell behind early or gave up halftime leads, the squad finished the season strong -- winning six of its past eight games by double-digits.
"We just told them that the season hinged on what they wanted it to be, not the coaches, and they were going to have to buy in, be coachable and do what we wanted them to do and fight for each other," McMillan said.
Now heading into the NCAA tournament, McMillan isn't sure his team really understands what it has accomplished.
"They are so young," he said. "They just play and play until the buzzer goes off. It's refreshing, but nerve-wracking for a coach."
McMillan's daughter, 1-year-old Alli, might not fully understand, either. But these days she's a symbol for her father's fledgling squad. A picture of the youngest member of the McMillan family joining in the net cutting at the OVC tournament hangs in her day care center, a constant reminder of the young Skyhawks' success.