by Lee Noles
Some of the players on Union Academy girls’ basketball team knew exactly which game it was this season when they realized how good they could be.
It wasn’t the 37-point blowout victory over Monroe, which won 23 games last year in reaching the third round of the state 2A playoffs. Neither was it the two-point win against 3A Cuthbertson, a program which handled the Cardinals by 30 points last season.
Surprisingly, a loss enlightened the Cardinals to what they were capable of this season. UA hung with a playoff-experienced Piedmont High in the first game of the season before falling to the Panthers, 88-81, in overtime. Since then, the Cardinals have risen to fifth in the state 1A poll, according to maxpreps.com, and have won eight straight after dispatching Pine Lake Prep, 78-72, at home on Dec. 15. They are currently 8-1, which is the best start in the more than 10-year history of the program.
“They were a 3A school, and we are a 1A school. And that loss got us going on what we are doing right now,” said senior Briana Pressley, who became the first player for either the boys or girls program at UA to break 1,000 points during the win against the Pride. “So, this is exciting”
The excitement follows some challenging times for the Cardinals. The program hasn’t had a winning season in nine years. There was even a span from 2009 to 2013, where Union Academy went 3-69. The Cardinals also had back-to-back seasons where they didn’t win a game.
The culmination of the losses shook the confidence of the players. Something noticed by Cardinal coach Crystal Trull when she took over the team at the start of last season.
“When I came the players thought all the other teams were better than they were,” said Trull, who played basketball at Wingate University after a standout career at Forest Hills. “… But the mindset has changed, and it shows at practice. Now when we go over something, they are like ‘We got it. We are good to go.’”
An important factor in the Cardinals’ success this season has been the team’s ability to blend together the experience of seniors Pressley and Lauryn Boyd with the talent of newcomers junior Makayla Smith and freshmen Savanna Brooks and Mya Manivanh. Pressley leads the team in scoring at just over 18 points per game. Boyd has been strong on the glass, pulling down a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game.
Smith’s versatility shows all over the stat sheet. She averages 12.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Smith also leads the team in assists (5.3 per game) and steals (3.9 per game). Brooks is second on the team in scoring (13.5) and third in rebounds (6.2). Manivanh also has reached double digits in scoring at 10.6 per game.
Brooks said she was never concerned about what the Cardinals did in the past. She only knows what the team is capable of this season.
“We knew our year was going to be good,” Brooks said. “We were going to put the past behind us and try and make it a banner year.”
The change in mindset has also found its way to the defensive side of the ball this season. The Cardinals are holding their opponents to just over 40 points per game. Four times this season, Union Academy has kept the opposition to under 30 points.
“Defense helps cause turnovers,” Smith said. “And we like to push, get out on fast breaks and score some easy points.”
The change defensively is also noticed by Trull.
“It’s our intensity,” said Trull of the improvement. “… We are talking more, and that is what has helped us a lot this year.”
The defense will be put to the test Friday when the Cardinals play Parkwood at the Anson Invitational. The Rebels are the only unbeaten girls team in Union County at 9-0 and won their games by an average margin of 27 points. Parkwood is led by the tandem of senior Molly Setliff and sophomore Kennedie Gaither. Setliff averages over 15 points per game, while Gaither averages 10 ppg and leads the team in assists and steals at 6 per game.
“We have to play well from the buzzer and not have a slow start,” Smith said of the matchup with the Rebels. “But, we have played some 3A teams before, and we just have to come out prepared.”