An overpowering 51-43 defeat against the Howard University Bison during the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament semi-finals was not how the Lady Rattlers basketball team envisioned the end to its season.
But head coach LeDawn Gibson and Lady Rattlers are still holding their heads high as the loss concluded Florida A&M’s best season since 1996.
The Lady Rattlers collected 21 victories, 14 of which came during conference play. The record tied the total set by Claudette Farmer’s squad 16 years ago. The accomplishment was lead by the team’s starting five who all averaged double figures in shooting.
The exceptional record, however, does not show the team’s growth following loss of team member Shannon Washington during the preseason. After Washington’s unexpected death, the Lady Rattlers dedicated the season to her while keeping her name on the roster.
Gibson, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, admitted losing Washington was tough early in the season.
“We talked about Shannon sometimes over the season,” Gibson said. “It was a matter of keeping them humble and keeping them focused because they knew what was at stake.”
The Lady Rattlers entered a slow start this season with a 1-6 record. But the struggle did not last long as the Lady Rattlers earned big victories on the road against Southern Mississippi and Austin Peay, and began a 14-game winning streak that lasted for nearly two months.
Amid the success, the team continuously reminded itself of whom they were playing for. “Washington 24” was placed over the locker room door and tapped it before taking the court during every home game.
Senior forward/center Qiana Donald, the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, said sticking to what worked for the team was the secret behind its success. She said the team continued its routine approach to every game that led to several victories.
“It felt good,” Donald said. “We didn’t want to stay cocky, but we saw it was a blessing we got a chance to win and see another game, and to win period.”
With growing support from the community, the Lady Rattlers were able to piece together one of their best offensive performances during the streak against North Carolina Central, scoring a stifling 102 points in the Al Lawson Center. The crowd’s eruption as the Lady Rattlers scored demonstrated the electricity they generated all season.
The Lady Rattlers dropped two games to conference-rivals Hampton University and Howard before concluding the season. During the MEAC Tournament, the Lady Rattlers advanced to the semifinals but were defeated by Howard.
There will be a notable difference to the team’s roster for the 2012-2013 season as three top seniors – Antonia Bennett, Donald and Tameka McKelton, FAMU’s all-time leading three-point shooter – will be absent. Despite losing core players, Gibson said she remains confident the team will mirror its success.
“Losing the top-three players in the MEAC is going to be different, but its definitely a task that can be doable,” she said. “We are going to be younger next season, but I got a feeling that we are going to match our success next year.”