ANDERSON, S.C. – Watching Anderson University women's basketball coach Jonathon Barbaree snip away at the nylon dangling from the goal at Timmons Arena made for a perfect scene.
And with good reason.
In winning the South Atlantic Conference championship with a 62-60 win over Wingate on March 10, the Trojans had completed a perfect run through league play – finishing 20-0 in the regular season, 3-0 in the league tourney and winning 28 consecutive games – and earned the right to host the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional.
The women completed a sweep – claiming both the league tournament and regular season title for the first time since the 2012-13 season – and earned a fifth consecutive berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm so proud of the whole team from top to bottom," said Barbaree, who boasts a 71-21 record after three seasons at Anderson. "It was amazing watching the growth of everyone, and being able to send our seniors out with a double championship was great. We're aware of how good the teams have been here before, but we were trying to write our own story."
A program with a rich history had added another gold standard, and fans soaked in its remarkable success.
But there was plenty of sweat equity in a campaign that ended at 30-3 and with a two-game run in the Big Dance. So while Trojan Nation reveled in the spectacle of their team cutting down the nets, it was what happened behind the scenes that built a champion.
"Assistant coach Nicole Razor and I just kind of got together during the summer and we were trying to map out what to target and what to do with this year's team," Barbaree explained. "One of the things we knew might be a struggle, especially at the beginning, was rebounding. We had a post player who broke her ankle in the spring in the final workout and got six screws and two plates, so we didn't know how long it was going to take for her to get back, and then we had another young lady who wouldn't be able to play until Christmas in the post position as well."
Enter Alexy Mollenhauer, a 6-0 guard who was coming off a sophomore season that saw her lead the team in scoring (11.8 points per game) and rebounds (5.1).
"We talked about a plan of who we were going to move into that position, and one of the players was going to be Alexy," Barbaree said. "Well, as we moved her into the 4 spot (power forward) we got together and decided how we were going to restructure our offense to give us more of a face-up game from 1 (point guard) through 4. With that idea, having her would create some mismatches and we could even slide her to the 5 (center) spot to create other mismatches and get better spacing."
To say "the rest is history" would be cliché, but it wouldn't be wrong.
When the basketballs were put away and the hardware on display, AU reigned supreme in the South Atlantic Conference, Barbaree was Region Coach of the Year and SAC Coach of the Year, and Mollenhauer was First Team All-American, SAC Player of the Year, SAC Tournament MVP and SAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Guard Ace Easter was First Team All-SAC, while Madison Baggett, also a guard, earned Second Team honors.
"I think what you saw on the court is that we loved playing with each other," said Mollenhauer, who was tops in the SAC in eight statistical categories and paced AU with 19.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. "This was one of the most fun years I've ever had playing basketball, just because the time spent outside basketball and getting to know each other. We were each other's biggest fans on the court and off the court. We pushed each other to be better at practice, but on the court we were celebrating the others' victories.
"Being a family plays a huge role in how you perform."
Barbaree says the addition of a strength coach (Caleb Phillips) helped AU shift into overdrive, and Mollenhauer agrees.
"Having a strength coach, it just made a huge difference in physically carrying us through the whole season so you can play a lot of minutes," she said. "This year my body felt so much stronger and there was more consistency. And I think that played a big part in it, too."
Practice competition was also turned up several notches thanks to a male "scout team."
"That group came in and did a really good job saying, 'We're going to learn the
other team's plays and you guys have got to stop us … we're not taking it easy on you,'" Barbaree said. "That gave our team a challenge. Trying to beat them every day made some of the games seem a lot easier because these guys didn't care if there was a game tomorrow, they were going to try to take the ball from you 10 times in a row."
"That made us hungry and have that fight."
Oh, and don't forget "payday."
Team bonding exercises are nothing new, but the Trojans made sure to cash in on theirs.
"Coach Razor came up with a great idea on the first and 15th of every month where we do some kind of bonding event or get-together event or maybe share some testimony, share some Scripture, maybe just share some moment in life where you're at or even have a guest speaker," Barbaree said. "We joked around that the first and 15th were our paydays – let's pay ourselves by learning more about each other and learning more about people's walk with their faith and that kind of thing. I think that really helped, too, because it gave us some time to forget basketball and just sit down and talk and grow."
"That helped us keep that focus as a unit rather than just going out and chasing wins."
Mollenhauer relished the chance to go beyond Xs and Os with her coaches and teammates.
"It was really a unique time where we could just come together," Mollenhauer said. "Basketball's a huge part of us but there are so many other things – everybody faces things in a season, and this was a time to share what was going on in our lives. That was really cool."
Having gone 20-11 the year before and returning a wealth of talent, there was every reason to believe this team would be part of the postseason again. Still, after four games the Trojans were 2-2 and still trying to find a rhythm as the conference schedule approached.
Once they did, they kept it for 28 games.
"We lost the first game of the year (67-66 to Clayton State) – it just slipped through our fingers and we had five or six little things we could've done better," Barbaree remembers. "Then we bounced back and won two, but then we lost by six on the road (77-71 at Claflin) in a pretty tough environment. When we came in the locker room after that game and were all sitting there, we looked around and said, 'We should've won both those games."
"And you can kind of tell everybody realized we needed to do something different and go to the next tier."
There were plenty of blowouts along the way, of course, but also a handful of "gut-check" games.
A road trip to Wingate in January saw AU trail 50-45 entering the fourth quarter only to tie the game up, force overtime and hang on for a 67-65 victory.
A game at Lincoln Memorial in February also tested Barbaree's charges – a contest that stayed close throughout with Anderson hanging on for a 66-63 win.
Wingate took the Trojans to the brink one more time in the SAC Championship Game, but when the horn sounded the Black and Gold owned another victory over the Bulldogs, this time with the grand prize of a league title.
"They built so much trust with each other, they weren't worried at all about when we got in tight situations who to lean on," Barbaree said. "They knew the next person would step up whether it was an injury, foul trouble – they had faith in each other. Alexy may have a game where she had 20 points or she may have a game where she had five and someone else stepped up and had 20 and everybody was just as happy. It didn't matter who did it, the key was let's leave with a win.
"When you've got a team thinking more about we instead of me, that's what you want."
"In recruiting you talk about, 'Yeah, we're a family,' but every family will have those moments where you get on each other's nerves or have some problems, but kudos to the seniors for doing an amazing job balancing all of that," Barbaree said. "Basketball is a long season and you get tired of being around each other or tired of hearing each other but it never spilled over into a game or practice. The seniors, the captains, were the ones to say, 'Hey, we've got to lock in, we've got to go to work."
Although the season ended with a 64-61 loss to Lander in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional semifinals, it couldn't damper the Trojans' remarkable achievements – both team-wise and individually.
"We felt like we let the last game slip away," Barbaree said. "Sometimes when you have that chip on your shoulder, once you do take the two weeks (after the season) to let your body recover and heal, then you can sit back and go, 'You know, we had a good year.' You can appreciate it. But when we start workouts we'll be thinking about that last game and thinking we're not going to let that happen again."
Although the 2018-19 season is still fresh in their minds, the Trojans are already turning their attention to 2019-20. Just as the groundwork was laid well before the first tip last November, players and coaches are anxious to do it all over again.
"This was one of those teams that all the coaches I'd ever worked for would talk about how you want to have a team like this where all the pieces come together," Barbaree said. "It was like the senior leadership and some of the players who had been here before felt like we had some unfinished business."
"And going into next season, we still have some unfinished business."