No crying towels in Prairie View locker room

March 26, 2013 - 12:16am
Prairie View A&M's Latia Williams (No. 23) posted 10 points and hauled down nine boards in Sunday's opening-round NCAA Tournament loss to Baylor, and despite the loss, said she was thrilled to have had the opportunity to play in the tournament. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Prairie View A&M's Latia Williams (No. 23) posted 10 points and hauled down nine boards in Sunday's opening-round NCAA Tournament loss to Baylor, and despite the loss, said she was thrilled to have had the opportunity to play in the tournament. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

No. 1 Baylor 82, No. 16 Prairie View 40

WACO, Tex. -- The postseason was over quickly for 16th-seeded Prairie View A&M and with it the collegiate careers of the team’s three seniors. The Panthers lost, yet again, and in dramatic fashion in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament Sunday, falling, 82-40, to the defending national champion Baylor Bears on their home court in Waco.

But there were no crying towels in the Panthers’ locker room afterward, or at the very least, the tears had long since dried when 10 minutes after the final buzzer sounded, the doors to the visitors’ locker room opened and the sound of young women’s laughter spilled out into the corridor.

The Panthers have been there, done that: Five times in the past seven years they have put together a winning season, dominated the Southwestern Athletic Conference and received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. For the past three years in a row, they have arrived at the tournament as the SWAC conference tournament champions, receiving the league’s automatic bid.

Each time, they have also been seeded No. 16, only to serve as a whipping post for one of the top teams in the country in the opening round. (Baylor also beat the Panthers, 66-30, in the first round as the top seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament; last year, Connecticut did the honors, handing the Panthers an 83-47 first-round defeat).

But don’t let that fool you. The magic of the Big Dance is still alive for Prairie View, whose players aren’t just “happy to be there,” but take joy and a great deal of justifiable pride in the brief postseason appearances that have become an annual tradition for the Panthers in recent years.

Despite the string of early exits, the Panthers’ streak of postseason appearances remains a point of pride, not only for the players but also for the entire Prairie View campus.

“Oh, they love it!” said head coach Toyelle Wilson of the importance of her team’s winning tradition to the school and the community. “I mean, our fans came down – we had two buses. Our band came, and cheerleaders, spirit, everybody came down. And they really, like, we’re like, the reason people go to basketball games. They really support our girls, and we love the support. It’s like our sixth man and we love this big community support, the university support, the student body support.”

To the delight of a crowd overwhelmingly made up of Baylor fans, the Prairie View mascot and spirit squads danced and cheered on their team as though it were they, not Baylor, who were up by 40. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

The Panthers’ annual trips to the tournament have also helped spur recruiting, according to Wilson. “It’s awesome! You know, we’re getting top-level kids, mid-major kids, kids that didn’t even know where Prairie was. But they’re like, ‘Hey, I want to know what that’s about!’ And that’s what I told the kids: ‘People are watching us on TV. They’re going to want to know who Prairie View is and come and check us out.”

Senior guard Jaquandria Williams has only been to the NCAA Tournament twice, having transferred to Prairie View from Copiah-Lincoln Community College, and she doesn’t take the experience for granted.

Despite knowing they’ll be a 16-seed facing a one-seed on its own home court with no one who’s not sporting Panther purple giving them a prayer at a win, “The magic is still there,” said Williams.

“We’re still coming off a SWAC championship,” Williams continued. ”Everybody doesn’t get to be in this position that we’re in, so we’re still happy for that, and we’re going to continue that magic and roll [it] over to the next upcoming year.”

Williams said she has only one regret – and it isn’t that she and her teammates have never won an NCAA Tournament game. “The only regret I probably will ever have is I should have been here four years.” Williams bounced around a bit before landing at the small Prairie View campus just outside Houston. Williams started her collegiate career as a freshman at University of Cincinnati, then transferred first to Baton Rouge Community College, then to Copiah-Lincoln Community College, and finally to Prairie View, where she said her past two years have been “a great experience.”

What she’s proudest of is “sticking in there. Sticking in there and playing ball. I moved around so much with these different schools, I wanted to give up a lot of times. But I just remember one thing that kept me there was basketball and my heart and passion for the game.”

Williams insists that despite the David-versus-Goliath character of the match-up, she and her teammates aren’t just going through the motions. The team motto at Prairie View is “We don’t train for second place.” These are competitors – “warriors,” their coach calls them -- and, at least in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, they don’t often finish second.

“We knew where we was coming in and who we was coming up against,” said Williams. “We had the mentality of just come here, play hard.  Play hard, have fun. We just felt that, you know, as long as we compete hard, and go out there with everything, and execute our game plan, that we was going to be OK. We were going to be all right.”

Kiara Etienne, who earned recognition as a second-team NJCAA All-American in 2011 while playing alongside Williams at Copiah-Lincoln, takes a similar attitude.

Kiara Etienne No. 16-seeded Prairie View A&M's Kiara Etienne (No. 32) looks for an opening as top-seeded Baylor's Odyssey Sims defends. Etienne described her emotional reaction to Prairie View’s third-straight invitation to the Big Dance as “hyped and just anxious to get here and play," despite the lopsided seedings. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

“We won it,” said Etienne of her pride at having won the right to represent the SWAC in the NCAA Tournament. And that's no small accomplishment. Etienne was named the tournament’s MVP this year, after leading he Panthers to a 100-87 quadruple overtime victory over runner-up Mississippi Valley State. “So we’re going to try our hardest to fight for it.,” Etienne continued. “It’s hard to, with the 16-seed, beat the No. 1 seed. But there’s upsets in basketball. So you know what? Sometimes things happen.”

Latia “Puff” Williams is the only senior who has made all of the Panthers’ last four trips to the NCAA Tournament, having medically redshirted what would have been the 2010 season, when Prairie View missed the NCAA but appeared in the WNIT. Williams describes it as a “thrill to be here,” especially in her last two years as an upperclassman. But she admits her attitude – and confidence – has improved over time.

“The first two years, it was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got a 16-seed,” said Williams, mimicking her former defeated tone of voice. “But like my junior year, we started believing,” Williams continued, her enthusiasm growing as she recalled the change. “We started believing. We said, ‘Okay, we actually can play with these girls! So like, it’s getting better every year.  Like the group of girls that we’ve got, they’re going to believe next year. They’re going to be in the same place next year. And we’ve just believed that we can do it. We try to get the upset every year.”

While an upset wasn’t in the cards this time around, Williams, the SWAC Player of the Year, did her part, just missing a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds, plus three assists. Though Williams stands just 5-10, she was relentless on the glass, pulling down a game-high seven offensive boards, snatching several of them out of the hands of the 6-8 Brittney Griner. (Of course, Griner “got hers,” as well, as she guided the defending champs to victory with a game-high 33 points -- two of them on a fiercesome dunk that left the backboard vibrating long after the game had moved to the other end of the court -- to go with 10 boards, six blocks, three assists and a steal.)

Etienne admits that she and her fellow seniors had to help some of their younger teammates adopt the appropriate attitude. “I just tell them to work for it,” she said. “They be down on themselves, that they can’t do it. But I tell them they can do it. It’s nothing. They just gotta fight.”

But Williams said it isn’t that hard to keep the level of excitement up. “No, it’s not hard. We’ve just got to go at ‘em strong every year. Every year. You’d better believe – we go for the upset every year. We know we’re going to get the 16-seed so it’s like, ‘Oh, all right. Let’s go. Come on!’ You just fight through it and try.”

The attitude of the three seniors, all of whom said they hope to continue their basketball careers overseas, is a reflection of the philosophy and personality of their head coach, who works hard to ensure her charges don’t take the experience for granted. She also endeavors to ensure her players are aware of the role that predominantly or exclusively African-American colleges like Prairie View played in keeping the sport alive in the mid-20th century, when many of the schools that currently dominate (including Baylor) had eliminated women's basketball as a varsity sport. She wants them to take pride in carrying on that tradition.

“I’m always preaching that this is definitely a privilege; it’s not a right, and every day you go out on the floor, you have to understand that it’s earned, it’s not given. And you’ve got to respect the game and respect what you’re doing. We appreciate every day. And they understand; it’s a sense of urgency – you don’t only have but so much time to be on this court, to be in the NCAA, to not be in the real world. And you know, those three seniors, they’re not going to be able to experience this any more. And that’s why we’ve won [the SWAC tournament championship and automatic NCAA bid] three years in a row … because they understand the urgency. And if you understand that urgency and that opportunity only comes once in a lifetime, that it could be taken away like that. So we appreciate all of the time.”

There’s not much this Prairie View squad takes for granted. They’ve built their winning tradition without the budget for many of the luxuries that bigger programs have become accustomed to. One Baylor fan serving as a security guard for the NCAA tournament was impressed by the Prairie View team’s humility and grace. 

“They didn’t eat out like the other teams who come here. The girls fixed their own meals in their rooms and brought them with them,” the guard recounted. She said the Prairie View players were “so excited” when they learned they could choose from a selection of meals and snacks the tournament hospitality team had put together. “’You mean we get a choice?’” she recalled one player asking.

Another occasion of excitement – clean laundry. The guard, who asked that her name not be used in this article, recalled one member of the Panthers asking whether she could guide them to a Laundromat where they could wash their practice uniforms or whether there was someplace on campus where they could wash them. “Where they could wash them,” the guard emphasized. “They were just thrilled when we told them all they had to do was give them to our equipment manager.”

Wilson wasn’t surprised that there was laughter, not tears, in the locker room even after such a lopsided loss. “That’s the type of kids we have – kids that are happy. I told them, ‘Don’t let this define our season. You’ve accomplished so much. So much, and so much history and … so much',” Wilson recalled with transparent pride in her players. “And I kept it light-hearted. You know, the one thing I said to them when Brittney [Griner] dunked, I said, ‘Oh well, at least she didn’t dunk on anybody!’ So I’m pretty light-hearted with that. But they understand that I love them and am really proud of them.”

Toyelle Wilson
Prairie View A&M head coach Toyelle Wilson was proud of her overmatched team for staying within 10 points of Baylor for the game's first 12 minutes. She also encouraged them to savor the experience of playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Wilson also reminds her players that there are more than 300 women’s basketball teams in the NCAA’s Division I, and most of them are watching the tournament on TV, not competing in it on the floor.

“I told them that in the locker room. I told them, ‘There’s 300 teams that aren’t even here. So you’ve got to go out there, and play with your heart. Play with intensity. Play with integrity',” said Wilson. “’Play play with each other. And go play hard.’ And I said, the last thing is to have fun! It’s a great experience. Have fun. Take in this moment. Take in the crowd. Take in the whole thing, and have fun with it. And I think they did.”

“Yes, I know they did,” she added emphatically.