For the first time in the history of its women’s basketball program, Reinhardt University will compete in the NAIA Division II national tournament, which starts today in Sioux City, Iowa.
Two former Dalton High School standouts are a big part of why the team is celebrating the trip and last month’s first-ever Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament championship for the program.
Hannah Mayo and April Besley are both starters for the Lady Eagles, who are a No. 8 seed in the 32-team bracket and will play against top-seeded Saint Francis (Ind.) in the national tournament at 10:15 a.m. today at the Tyson Event Center. The game will be streamed live on naia.org.
Mayo, a starting senior guard for the Lady Eagles, was named to the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-District team and was a conference all-academic team member. She averages 4.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. Mayo is in her fifth year, having missed last season after undergoing ankle surgery.
Besley is a sophomore forward who plays much taller than her 5-foot-8-inch frame would suggest. She is the team’s leading rebounder with 7.9 per game and ranks 25th in the nation in rebounding. She averaged nearly eight rebounds per game while scoring 5.8 points per game.
The Lady Eagles enter the tournament with a 19-14 record. Saint Francis is 30-3.
Reinhardt has played the underdog role throughout the season.
Coach Lindsey Huffman is in her first season, and since she took over last April, the roster has gone through many changes as players have left the program and freshman signees entered.
The Lady Eagles were the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, but upset regular-season champion Milligan (Tenn.) College in the tournament semifinals and beat Union (Ky.) College in the championship game. Besley averaged more than 10 rebounds per game in the tournament.
“We had to overcome a lot of adversity to get here,” Besley said. “We had to pull it together and we did. We like being the underdog.
“Teams don’t expect us to win or do anything, but we have nothing to lose. You play like it is your last game and just do it.”
Mayo also relishes the underdog role of this season.
“That is definitely our mentality,” she said. “A lot of times we are underestimated and people don’t give us any credit. It doesn’t bring us down or get us too emotional either way.
“We have a new coach who came in April, and we have had several girls leave the team. It was a new coach and new players and a new system. It has been tough enough to bring all of that together. Our record may not look the best, but we have put it together when it matters.”
Huffman said the Dalton duo has been a big reason for the team’s success this season.
“Hannah is by far one of the toughest girls I have ever been around mentally and physically,” said Huffman, who came to Reinhardt after spending three years as an assistant coach at North Georgia College and State University. “She is a great person off the court, and she already knew how to work hard and she has been through a lot. She bought in from day one. She is a catalyst who has been a great example for her team.”
Besley has impressed her coach as well.
“April just has something that you just can’t coach,” Huffman said. “She is undersized as a four position, and she outworks and outrebounds people every night. She wants the basketball. She is 110 percent all of the time. That is rare and so valuable to our team.”
The challenges of this season have been many, but the win total is the most ever in program history.
“I would like to say it was a walk in the park, but we have had a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Huffman said. “Probably with all of the challenges, I doubt there are a lot of teams we have played with those same obstacles to overcome.”
But now that the Lady Eagles are on the biggest stage, they are enjoying it.
“It is definitely been exciting,” Mayo said. “We always knew it was possible. We have some ups and downs this season. At times, I didn’t think that we would get here, but I had faith.”