During her head coach stints at Texas Tech (Big 12) and Purdue (Big 10), Kristy Curry got a clear, cold-hearted view of what it requires to build the foundation of a women’s basketball program in a league where many heavyweights were already rooted in place.
Now in her fifth year at Alabama, Curry is bringing every lesson, insight and instinct to the table, with the Crimson Tide angling for traction in the imposing SEC. Part of that journey will require accomplishments in the postseason, and Alabama is making progress there with its third straight year in the WNIT.
The Tide (19-13) takes on 2017 WNIT finalist Georgia Tech (20-13) tonight in Tuscaloosa (8 p.m. ET), with the winner facing either Fordham or Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals.
Alabama is making headway in the SEC in ways that are both patient and urgent. With home games now in Coleman Coliseum, the fan base has a more engaging and attractive venue, which slowly builds those numbers. Curry is also a cagey recruiter, and there’s a class of seven signees headed to campus next fall that should keep the skill and improvement arc trending nicely.
In the here and now, the Tide plays hard and fast; there’s no other way to be in the SEC.
“We knew when we took the job it was going to take some time. Three years in, we were playing in Coleman Coliseum, which was huge for the fan experience and for recruiting,” said Curry, whose team won at Tennessee for the first time ever in 2018. “To put ourselves on an even playing field in this league has been important, to show progress.
“I think the WNIT is great for opportunity, for growth and to keep the program moving forward. It’s a chance to win a championship. You look at (2017 WNIT champion) Michigan from a year ago, and they’re in the NCAAs. We are excited for the opportunity; we’re on Day 12 of practices, so that’s more development. You want to develop the mentality that you always want to be playing in the postseason.”
Like most teams, the disappointment of missing out on the NCAA tournament needed a little massaging for the Tide, but when the alternative is sitting at home and not continuing the work of pushing boundaries … that’s really no alternative at all. Plus, ending the season on a three-game losing streak (including OT losses to Georgia and LSU) would have left a profoundly sour taste.
“The amount of disappointment and tears and emotion – to win for the first time ever at Tennessee, then to lose in overtime on two games that came down to the last possession ... we had expended a tremendous amount of energy,” Curry said. “So we sat them down and asked, if things don’t go your way, how will you respond? This is a great opportunity as we look to move forward."
“We all met at a restaurant and watched the NCAA selection show … you know, when you go four years somewhere, you want to make the NCAA’s. Who wouldn’t?” said senior Hannah Cook, the team’s leading scorer. “It was heartbreaking. But you have to take the opportunities you are provided, and we got the (SEC’s) automatic bid for the WNIT. I did a lot of praying … we bounced back, got back to work, and we’re looking for the 20th win of our season against a Georgia Tech team we’ve played a few times, and it’s been very back-and-forth.”
Alabama beat the Yellow Jackets in the non-conference portion of last year’s schedule, before Tech won by 10 points in the WNIT. Curry is hoping her team’s depth, which has helped survive some tough nights in the SEC, will be a difference-maker tonight.
The Tide plays good defense and is very solid at the free-throw line; the nagging trouble spots are assists-to-turnovers (11.9 to 15.3 per game) and 3-point shooting (a little behind-the-curve at 29.6 percent).
“We know in this league, you have to have depth. In the SEC, night in and night out … we’ve tried to build our roster,” she said. “Our bench is a big part of our future, as are the seven signees we have coming in. In the SEC, you won’t sustain any success with six or seven players. You need to be deep, talented, big and athletic. What I do like is the way we play attack basketball; we are running and pushing and playing free.”
For the six-member senior class, there will be no hesitation, with everyone fully aware of how suddenly the end may come.
“I love basketball and the upsets and drama of March Madness … but once you’re a senior and watching other games, you are watching people who came in with you, at other schools,” Cook said. “And they’re crying after games when they’ve lost. Their season is over, and it hits you. And how my season can be potentially over after any game now … I’m going to take it hard.
“This is the game I love, and college just flies by. I’m happy with the legacy we are leaving. The way the program was when we came in – we’ve got better attendance, we are playing in Coleman these last two years, and I think this team is going places.”