The third-seeded Wolves are taking those feel-good vibes into the quarterfinal round of the Gulf South Conference Tournament, where they’ll meet up with No. 6 West Alabama today at 3:30 p.m. at the Pete Hanna Center on the campus of Samford University in Homewood, Ala., looking to make a run to the Big Dance.
“We have some kids that are a little bit banged up, but for the most part we’re pretty healthy. I feel positive going in. But all that can change. It’s one-and-done from here on out for just about everybody. And so I think the team that relaxes and does what they do and doesn’t try to do too much and doesn’t panic and doesn’t let outside pressure get them into all this worry is going to be successful,” Groninger said.
West Georgia (16-10) and the Tigers (12-14) split during the regular season, with each team holding serve at home — UWA claimed an 82-61 decision in Livingston, Ala., on Jan. 5 and the Wolves rebounded with a 62-54 victory in Carrollton on Feb. 9. Of course, there’s much more at stake today in the grudge match.
West Alabama goes as its 1-2 punch go in senior guard Nikkia Jordan and senior forward Brittany Weathers — a duo that was voted to the All-GSC First Team this week.
The Tigers, who won the GSC Tournament last season as a No. 4 seed under former UWG coach Craig Roden, have dealt with health issues throughout the season, but appear to be getting healthy at the right time of the year. Groninger has reiterated throughout the season that, when healthy, West Alabama is as dangerous as anyone in the league.
“This is West Alabama’s wheelhouse. Even on his web site he talks about it. Their goal three-and-a-half weeks ago was to get everybody healthy. He feels like they’re healthy. They’re a strange team. When they’re healthy and when they’re playing well, they’re as good as anybody in our league,” Groninger said. “But we’re not going to worry so much about them. We’ve got to worry about us. We’ve got to worry about doing the things that we do well and then we’ll see how that stacks up.”
That mantra has spilled over into Groninger’s players, who are more focused that West Georgia plays West Georgia basketball this weekend.
“We’ve just got to go in there and be us. We can’t really worry about anybody else. If we go and play our game, we’ve got nothing to worry about,” noted sophomore guard Brittany Johnson, who is averaging 9.3 points and a team-best 7.2 rebounds on the year. “I mean, it’s just the third game of the season. That’s all.”
West Georgia senior guard Mone’ Peoples — honored as a Second Team All-GSC selection this week — said while the team is feeling good about itself, it ultimately boils down to who lays it on the line this weekend. As one of two seniors on the squad, along with point guard Jerlisa Taylor, this final run means all the more entering today’s battle.
“It’s really big. If you don’t give it your all, you’re going to regret something later on. It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to go out and give it your all,” said Peoples, who leads the UWG offense at 14.7 points per game.
Groninger said in a tournament format where you basically play in four-minute intervals with the media timeout, you can’t get too high when things are going your way or too low when they’re not.
“We want to just maintain the same emotional level we’ve done all year and be poised and patient and just see when 40 minutes are up where we stand,” Groninger said. “You can’t just base it on a bad shot or someone’s nervous and they shoot an airball. That’s no big deal. You’ve just got to play the whole 40 minutes and be poised and feel like if we do what we do, we’re going to be successful.”
With four GSC teams ranked in the South Region’s top-10 — West Georgia is No. 10 — Groninger thinks up to three teams could make the NCAA Tournament, with the conference champion earning the automatic berth and then two potential at-large bids. But the UWG coach would rather not take his chances with that crapshoot and be playing on Sunday with the opportunity to make their own fate.
But first things first, today’s quarterfinal showdown with West Alabama.
“We’d love the opportunity to play on Sunday. That’s really what we’re trying to do. But, honestly, I think if you’d ask the players, all we’ve talked about is Friday,” Groninger said.