Magical season ended too soon

Members of the Southeast Missouri State women's basketball team punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament after knocking off UT Martin 67-47 in the championship of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Saturday at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
Michael Dann/Special to the Southeast Missourian

There are no silver linings to the coronavirus.

It is not melodramatic to say COVID-19 has reached its microscopic fingers into every nook and cranny of all our lives.

It’s an anxious, worrying time – and for good reason.

While there is truly no upside to this existential crisis, there are a few compensations.

Self-sheltering, social distancing, what we’re all doing to be safe, has given us time at home.

More time with loved ones.

More time with our pets.

Rekha Patterson, head coach of the Southeast Missouri State women’s basketball team, has a Rottweiler by the name of Diamond.

If you call the coach’s residence, you might hear Diamond announce her presence over the phone.

Rottweilers are fierce but known be to extremely loyal and protective of their masters.

Diamond would seem a perfect companion for an all-in, never-say-die coach.

As much as the fifth-year skipper of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champion Redhawks loves Diamond, she would prefer to be courtside.

According to the original schedule for the now-cancelled NCAA women’s tournament, to which SEMO punched its ticket March 7 in Evansville, Indiana, the team might have already played its first-round March Madness contest.

The opening contests were scheduled March 20-21.

Something which cannot be seen, but definitely felt, stopped it all.

A bug pulled out the rug from under Patterson’s team.

Patterson says she is still in shock by the abrupt end to a magical season.

“I’m still sad too,” admitted the North Carolina native. “(The crisis) means we’re doing our normal team check-ins on Mondays by group text.”

Patterson remains in Cape while team members have gone to their respective homes.

None will be back this semester because Southeast has suspended face-to-face classes for the balance of the semester. All courses effectively are online.

There’s no reason, then, none at all, to be on campus.

Patterson, 41, says she is determined to keep the memory of the 2019-20 campaign alive.

“We want to find a way to commemorate the season,” Patterson said. “I don’t want people to forget this group.

“We need to figure out how to put a bow on it,” she added.

The Redhawks won 25 games and won the school’s first OVC Tournament title since 2007.

How did Patterson build a group of young women, picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the OVC, into champions?

She believed she could, and she did

Patterson’s operating basketball philosophy is not so much about screens, traps and schematics as it is something more esoteric.

To have success, she must get 14 people, her players, to grasp and live out her vision – to see the game the way she does.

As Patterson puts it, in a motto the team developed in a retreat last summer, they must have “one healthy heartbeat.”

Clearly, the OVC Coach of the Year knows and understands the jargon and lingo of hoops as well as any of her colleagues.

An analogy is helpful here.

A race car driver may know the intricacies of the engine, may understand slip differential, may be fully informed about the precise gasoline needed for maximum performance – but none of those things will help him win the Daytona 500.

A victorious driver must become as one with the car and must be able to be understood by the pit crew in one or two words or even in hand signals what needs to happen next.

This communication needs to occur within seconds.

Patterson knows the X’s and O’s of her business, but she is clear victory is about more than knowing schemes.

Caring about one another, serving each other, is the top priority in Patterson’s system.

She knows her recruits can play.

Finding kids who were stars in high school and melding them into an unselfish college team committed to winning takes something more than pure skills.

Building a successful women’s program took five years at Southeast.

“You have to find the right people who believe in the vision,” Patterson says, “and this took some time.

“We also had a long enough leash (from Southeast’s administration) to get there,” she added.

Injury bug early

Olivia Hackmann, a 1,000-point scorer for Southeast, was a senior in Patterson’s first year, 2015-16. Hackmann broke her foot before conference play began. Out. She was awarded a redshirt year.

In Patterson’s second year, 2016-17, she did not have the services of future Redhawks star Carrie Shephard, because protocol dictated Carrie had to sit out the season due to her transfer from Mizzou.

Hackmann was back for one more campaign but as luck would have it, she broke her foot again late in the season.

Shephard, the coach figured, would be ready to go in year three.

Year three, 2017-18, comes and the 5-foot-4 Steele, Mo. product, goes down with an ACL in the first week of classes. Out. Tesia Thompson joins the team and impresses immediately. The Memphis native is named OVC Freshman of the Year.

In year four, 2018-19, the Redhawks seemed mired in another year of mediocrity. A below-.500 finish for the third year in a row. Not terrible, not even bad, just so-so.

The seeds of this year’s turnaround had been fully sown, however.

A healthy Shephard (9.6 ppg) joined then-sophomore Tesia Thompson (18.2 ppg/tied for 1st in the OVC) as emerging leaders, boding well for Patterson’s year five – the breakthrough year cruelly ended by the coronavirus.

“You have to believe in the process,” Patterson preaches. “You have to decide to trust it.”

W’s and L’s

“At the end of the day,” Patterson said, “it’s about winning and losing.”

Patterson says former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz once put it succinctly.

She says she was watching Holtz, whose Fighting Irish team won the 1988 national championship, on ESPN’s “College Game Day.”

Patterson recalled Holtz said something she’s not forgotten.

“When you win,” Patterson recalled the now-retired Holtz say, “your enemies can’t hurt you, but when you lose, your friends can’t help you.”

“It’s hard to win,” Patterson said. “Something special happened (at SEMO) and the struggle to get here has made it all the sweeter.”

Five pivotal moments in Patterson’s tenure

Year One (2015-16). Lost prolific scorer Hackmann early in the season but managed to avoid a losing campaign. Southeast finished 12th in the league and had the 5th seed in the postseason OVC tournament.

Record: 15-15 (8-8 OVC, tournament tie for 5th place.)

It was the first OVC tournament appearance for Southeast since 2009.

“(Looking back), it was part of building a winning program,” said Patterson.

Year Two (2016-17). Hackmann and Bri Mitchell, two 1,000-point team scorers, lace it up for Southeast. Carrie Shephard was on the team but out because of NCAA transfer rules.

Record: 13-17 (7-9 OVC, tournament tie for 6th place.)

“We started to show people we could score,” recalled Patterson.

Year Three (2017-18). Tesia Thompson, voted the league’s top freshman, joins the squad. Adrianna Murphy, in her final season, named OVC defensive player of the year. Shephard’s ACL eliminates her entire season.

Record: 14-17 (9-9 OVC, tournament tie for 6th place.)

“I could see what we had coming up,” Patterson said, “and I had to keep believing.”

Year Four (2018-19). A newly healthy Shephard combines with Thompson in what Patterson calls her “two-headed (scoring) monster.” Despite the Redhawks’ overall finish, they played four-time OVC conference champ Belmont competitively in the final regular season game (92-86) and in the first game of the league tournament (74-65), both narrow losses.

Record: 13-17 (8-10, tournament’s sixth place finisher.)

“We showed Belmont,” Patterson said, “that we could play with them.”

Year Five (2019-20). Patterson points to a couple of key games setting the tone for a remarkable season.

Southeast had lost recruits to Arkansas State, so Patterson said it was satisfying to get a 79-67 double-digit win in Jonesboro on Nov. 13.

“We beat (ASU) soundly on the road,” said Patterson.

Patterson also points to a key mid-December road win, a 70-53 trouncing of Ole Miss in Oxford, Ms. Dec. 14.

“I knew then,” Patterson said, “we were going to be a good team.”

Record: 25-7 (14-4 OVC, tournament champion.)

Key Player – Tesia Thompson

Thompson was a Top 100 recruit coming out of Hamilton High School in Memphis.

“I told Tesia I wouldn’t promise (her) playing time,” Patterson said, “but I would promise a degree.”

For the 5-foot-10 Thompson, Southeast’s determined interest in her made the difference in her choosing to come north to Cape Girardeau.

“I was told by a coach at my high school to go with a (university) which really wants you,” Thompson said.

“We made the maximum number of visits to see (Tesia) play which the NCAA allows – seven,” said Patterson.

“Yes,” Thompson recalled, “Coach P made to my senior night and I felt very special.”

Patterson has a vivid memory of the night Tesia committed.

“We were on the road at Austin Peay and we’d lost,” remembered Patterson. “I also got my first technical foul in that game.

Then Tesia calls and said she wanted to play here,” she added.

“They cheered so loud over the phone,” remarked Thompson. “I felt so valued and hadn’t even arrived (there) yet.”

The former mayor of Cape Girardeau, Jay Knudtson, once gave a December commencement address at Southeast.

In his remarks, he advised graduates to “control the controllables.”

This idea was on Thompson’s mind as she contemplated the truncated end of the Redhawks season.

“We can control what we can, and this virus isn’t one of them,” Thompson opined. “It’s a big loss for everyone but I’m thankful God gave us the opportunity to become OVC champions.”

Thompson realizes, with Shephard’s eligibility used up, she will become the unquestioned leader in the 2020-21 season.

“Carrie is a rare leader,” Thompson said, “but she left some things with me that I’ll take into my senior year.

“I’ve been a leader but now I’ll need to become vocal in my leadership.”

Key Player – Carrie Shephard

Shephard, a star at South Pemiscot High in Steele, Mo., came to Southeast after a disappointing experience with the Missouri Tigers.

“Carrie (effectively) hadn’t played competitive basketball in two years,” said Patterson. “Try to ride a bicycle if you haven’t been on one for that long.

“Not everybody is made to do what (Carrie) did.”

Shephard admits it was the recommendation of 6-foot-2 forward Connor King, who made the most difference in Carrie attending Southeast.

King’s senior year was Rekha’s first in charge of the program.

“Connor is my best friend,” said Shephard. “I heard a lot of good things about Coach P from her.”

“You look at Carrie and you don’t imagine she can do the things she does with the basketball,” Patterson said.

“She surprises you,” she added.

Shephard holds the school record for most made three-pointers. She set the record in 2018-19 and then broke her own mark this past season.

“I heard how Carrie dropped 50 points in a high school game down in the Bootheel,” said Patterson.

“Pound for pound, (Carrie) is the strongest and most faith-driven kid I’ve coached,” she added.

Echoing her coach’s remarks, Shephard alluded her faith didn’t allow her to even contemplate not coming back from injury.

“I did what I knew to do – to pray and to work,” said Shephard, the oldest of the Redhawks at 24.

“I knew God had greater (things) in store for me,” she added.

Shephard gives Patterson high coaching marks.

“She (became) more patient with us, more understanding how our minds worked,” Shephard said, “which helped her know how to motivate and bring out the best.

“(Patterson) is our Olivia Pope and we will always be her gladiators.”

Asked for her feelings about the sudden end to the season, with no March Madness, Shephard admitted the denial of further play was tough.

“Man, the news hurt my heart,” Shephard said. “I knew we were going to do damage in the (OVC) tournament.

“We’re a championship team, nothing can change that.”

Shephard admits she would like to play professionally.

Redhawks assistant coach Sakellie Daniels has played eight years in Europe – in Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Finland and Romania.

She has contacts Shephard may find useful.

“I’ll most likely end up overseas,” Shephard said. “We’ll see what God has up His sleeve.”

A tournament for the ages

Taelour Pruitt’s buzzer-beating three-pointer as time expired in the OVC’s first round lifted Southeast to a thrilling 82-81 overtime win over Tennessee Tech March 5.

The 5-foot-6 sophomore guard’s trey is the memory that may endure the longest from Evansville, perhaps even more the Redhawks winning their first tournament title in 13 years two days later.

After all, if Pruitt misses that shot, everybody goes home to Cape.

“We wanted the ball in Carrie’s hands (in that spot),” Patterson recalled, “or with Tesia as a second option.

“Then T.P. puts up that shot. Wow,” she added.

Patterson, despite Southeast having the No. 1 offense in the OVC this season, thinks of her team as being defensive-minded.

“Guard play,” Patterson offered, “wins games in March.”

Grateful for Pruitt’s desperation heave, Patterson nonetheless singled out for praise the defensive play of a freshman off the bench.

“Roshala Scott was the difference in the Tennessee Tech game,” Patterson said.

Shephard is in full agreement with her skipper.

“We knew we could score but to shut down teams defensively is just the icing on the cake,” said Southeast’s most diminutive player.

The final two games of the league tournament were double-digit wins for the Redhawks – a 114-99 win over four-time defending champ Belmont in a semifinal and a 67-47 victory in the final over a hobbled No. 1-seed UT Martin, who had seven players injured and unable to take the court.

For Patterson, one phrase sums up the Redhawks’ amazing season:

“We were a team of destiny.”

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