- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Terri Williams-Flournoy had been here in Missouri before, but this was the first time in her new role as Auburn coach. In her 12-year apprenticeship as an assistant, she spent two seasons at Missouri State.
Williams-Flournoy -- known as Coach Flo by her Tigers -- has paid her dues in the profession she was practically born into. Part of a basketball family in Virginia that includes brother Boo Williams -- he's one of that state's most influential youth hoops gurus -- Williams-Flournoy climbed the coaching ladder with a purpose and a plan.
And now, she's in her first season in what is a new era for the SEC. Pat Summitt is in an emeritus role at Tennessee, but not head coach of the Lady Vols for the first time since 1973.
Williams-Flournoy is one of the new coaches in the league, along with Vic Schaefer at Mississippi State and Brett Frank at Ole Miss, which is the team Auburn faces Thursday.
She knows this league very well, actually, from her six seasons as an assistant to SEC dean of coaches Andy Landers at Georgia. Her time there included a trip to the Final Four, in 1999, and an education about what it takes to win in what is consistently an extremely athletic conference with a lot of diverse styles of play.
This past Sunday, Auburn faced Missouri, a school that -- along with fellow league newcomer Texas A&M -- is part of the SEC's season of change. Williams-Flournoy has been happy with the move to Auburn from Georgetown. But Sunday wasn't very enjoyable.
Mizzou hit an SEC-record 18 3-pointers in a 82-76 victory. Williams-Flournoy told her players afterward that they actually did a lot right except one very big thing: guarding the 3-point line. Chalk it up as another lesson the Tigers are learning as they adjust to a new system.
"We've set up how we want to play, and they understand it," Williams-Flournoy said. "But now, it's about implementing it on the floor.
"It's hard; when I played the zone at Georgetown, we didn't really have true post players. We had more athletic, 6-foot and 6-1 kids who could get out to the corners and guard anybody. With this lineup, we're trying to get them to do things they are less familiar with."
But as she proved at Georgetown, where she went 143-104 with three NCAA tournament appearances in eight seasons, Williams-Flournoy is a good bet to get Auburn back on track. The Tigers had some success in Nell Fortner's eight years there, but she opted to step down after last season and return to broadcasting. Meanwhile, Williams-Flournoy decided to move on from the Hoyas.
A wise decision, frankly. Georgetown was closer to her home, but Williams-Flournoy could read the writing on the wall in regard to how shaky the Big East had become. With terrific facilities, a successful history and a rock-solid conference, Auburn was far too good a situation to pass up.
Oh, and there's the much easier commute at Auburn than what she had on the highways of Washington, D.C.
"There's less traffic, for sure," Williams-Flounoy said, laughing. "It takes me exactly eight minutes to get home, versus an hour -- or two hours if it rains or there's an accident.
"[The move] has done things to better our life as a family. Is it an adjustment? Absolutely. I've got a middle-schooler who is about to lose her mind getting used to everything. But it's like putting a team together: You have to be patient and give it time."
Williams-Flournoy and her husband, Eric, daughter Maya and son Eric Jr. all are adjusting to this new life at the same time the Tigers are adjusting to a new coaching staff.
Senior Blanche Alverson acknowledged that the players got along well with Fortner and were sad to see her leave. But they've been excited to experience a different regime.
"Coach Flo and her staff have been unbelievable -- the energy they bring and the atmosphere around the program is super-positive," said Alverson, whose parents are both Auburn graduates. "She's straight to the point, and I think that's good. We need to hear it. But she's also uplifting and positive with us. I feel like she already knows us, even in the short amount of time she's been here."
Alverson, a 6-foot-3 forward/guard, is the definition of overachiever, by the way. An aspiring pediatrician, she will graduate this spring with her degree in bio-medical sciences. Alverson is heavily involved in community service -- her Ballin' for Books project has collected thousands of books for donation to needy children's groups and schools -- and she was Auburn's "Miss Homecoming" at a football game in November.
Alverson is also a pragmatist and was prepared for the best or the worst with a new coach.
"She could have said, 'Oh, the seniors just have one year and we're rebuilding,' and then not spent so much time with us," Alverson said. "But she's made the effort to get to know us personally. She's come in and really demanded greatness out of us and said, 'This year is what we make it.' We've bought into that."
The Tigers are 12-3 overall and 1-1 in the SEC, and are led by sophomore guard Hasina Muhammad's 16.6 points per game. Junior guard/forward Tyrese Tanner is at 13.1 ppg, and Alverson is at 11.9.
There will be ups and downs for the Tigers to face, but Williams-Flournoy knows what it takes to build a program that is always in the mix during the postseason. And she knows Auburn's proud past; during Williams-Flournoy's college playing career at Penn State from 1987 to '91, Auburn made the Final Four three times.
As a matter of fact, Auburn beat Penn State during the NCAA tournament in Williams-Flournoy's freshman year of 1988. The Tigers lost to Louisiana Tech in the national championship game that year.
"You look at the history and the things they have in place here -- it's a program that can win," Williams-Flournoy said. "It's an exciting challenge. It's a great conference to play in. With all those factors, it's a very good job."
14dBonnie D. Ford