Zach Smith, Staff Writer
For just the second time in school history, the Lady Mocs appeared in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. The women ultimately fell to the undefeated South Central Regional Champion Lubbock Christian University (33-0) in Sioux Falls, SD at the Sanford Pentagon 73-69, but the game marked a season highlight for the team.
The women never backed down. During the fourth quarter, the Mocs posted 22 points to Lubbock Christian’s 16. Senior forward Mariah Harris led the team with 19 points and nine rebounds during the contest.
The road to the Elite Eight was not easy for the ladies. After bowing out in the semifinal of the SSC tournament to Florida Tech, head coach Betsy Harris and her team were placed into the South Region of the NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament as the four seed.
In the first round against the fifth seed, Kentucky State, the ladies capitalized on 18 Kentucky State turnovers to produce 15 points off turnovers and forced Kentucky State to shoot just 33 percent from the floor. The Mocs won 61-50 and progressed to the regional semifinal.
In the regional semifinal, FSC would take on eighth seed University of Tampa. Tampa had won the Sunshine State Conference Tournament to earn a birth in the tournament and defeated the region’s top seed and host Union in the first round. With Tampa on a roll, the Mocs struggled for much of the game, trailing by as many as 16 points.
However, in the fourth quarter, Coach Harris and her team turned on the jets, scoring 32 points to turn the game on its head. After entering the quarter down by 11, the 32 points took the Mocs straight into the lead where the team would remain until the buzzer sounded.
FSC defeated Tampa by a score of 69-59 and moved on to the regional championship game to play the 11th-ranked and the second-seeded Benedict College.
In a game where shooting was hard to come by, Florida Southern and Benedict battled back and forth for much of the contest.
In her postgame press conference with the Florida Southern Athletics website, Coach Harris expressed amazing amounts of pride and excitement for her team.
“I actually don’t think it has sunk in yet. I am very proud of these girls, not only for tonight’s game, but for all that we’ve accomplished so far this season,” Harris said. “I knew we’d have a tough time with Benedict, they are an excellent team that is well coached. We aren’t supposed to here, so it feels really good to be here. I am happy for our seniors and I thought the effort was there tonight, but we didn’t shoot the ball well again. We just kept fighting and playing hard.”
For much of the regional tournament, FSC relied heavily on sophomore Jensen Blassage and senior Shaquita Snow. Against Benedict, Blassage scored a season-high 24 points and scored 18 of the team’s 26 points in the third quarter. Blassage was named the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional and Snow was named to the All-Tournament Team.
The season has been full of highlights for Coach Harris. On top of the Elite Eight appearance, Coach Harris recently won her 100th career game as a college head coach, but her successes and love for basketball stretch well beyond 100 wins.
Coach Harris never understood why she loved basketball so much, but she knew she loved the game. For Coach Harris, it all started in a gym in kindergarten, throwing the ball underhand towards the basket. From there, a simple activity became a passion.
As she grew older, Harris began to play competitively in junior high and high school.
At Decatur High School in Decatur, Miss., she earned All-State, All-South State and All-District honors. Coach Harris also went on to lead the school to its first-ever state championship in 1990.
Coach Harris went on to play collegiate basketball at the University of Alabama as a four-year starter under Rick Moody from 1990-94. In her time with the Crimson Tide, Coach Harris helped the university reach three straight NCAA Tournaments. In her senior year, she led a trip the NCAA Division I Final Four.
Coach Harris holds the all-time Alabama record most for career three-pointers with 272 and earned Second-Team All-SEC honors and Final Four All-Tournament Team honors her senior year.
She then took her playing career across the pond to Europe. There, she played in five countries over the course of three years, averaging over 18 points per game.
Although Coach Harris had accomplished so much at Alabama and in Europe, she says she was more proud of her teams and focused less on herself. Coach Harris described the Alabama team as a family.
Upon the start of her coaching career, Coach Harris says she hoped her teams would embody the spirit of the Alabama team. Rather than each player focusing on separate goals, Coach Harris wanted her teams to focus on the same goals and work as a cohesive unit.
In three seasons at Coastal Georgia, Coach Harris finished with a 68-27 record and led the Mariners to three consecutive winning seasons, including back-to-back 20-plus win seasons in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Coach Harris’ success at Coastal Georgia and her previous successes led Florida Southern Athletic Director Pete Meyer to bring her to Lakeland.
“She’s is a winner, it was simple. She won as a player. She has been a successful assistant coach,” Meyer said. “And she started a program from scratch and had great success at Coastal Georgia. She fit the bill for us.”
In her first season at Florida Southern, Coach Harris guided the team to a 13-14 record, a much better finish than the previous season, which saw the Mocs finish 7-20. This season, the Lady Mocs finished 27-6.
Coach Harris has said she attributes the team’s success to the increased amount of trust the team possesses. Coach Harris said last season was plagued with trust issues, but after coaching the team for a season, she has built a greater sense of trust amongst the players and with her as a coach.
Mariah Harris has said the success also comes from the fact that the team seems to have all the right pieces fitting into place this season. Mariah Harris has said she has finally had the opportunity to play the whole season with two healthy point guards, which allows for other players to play where they are most comfortable on the court.
Mariah Harris believes that Coach Harris has humbled the players to become more than just individual players. According to Mariah Harris, last season’s team was full of talent, but full of players trying to play their individual styles. However, this season, Coach Harris has engrained in them a system built around team play.
The team has made massive strides under Coach Harris, but what has remained most important for Coach Harris at Florida Southern is the team itself. Upon being hired at FSC, Coach Harris says she has sought to teach her players about the most important aspect a team needed, a sense of family.
Coach Harris has said she strives to not only have every single one of her players become an even better basketball player and obtain a degree, but also to develop a greater sense of character.
Every week, Coach Harris and her team volunteer at Brookdale Oakbridge Retirement & Assisted Living Facility. Coach Harris sees the volunteering as a chance for her players to build character, build team chemistry and allow them to see another side of each other.
Freshman guard Camille Giardina has said she sees it as an extremely rewarding experience. According to Giardina, the volunteering not only develops team chemistry, but also shows each and every one of the players the impact they have can extend beyond what they all do on the court.
Back on the court, Coach Harris is fierce, passionate and, according to Meyer, intense.
“Intense. One word. She is flat out intense. She eats and sleeps and drinks basketball,” Meyer said. “Every day her job is to wake up in the morning and figure out how she is going to win, and she has done it.”
Players and fellow coaches also take notice of Harris’ intensity. The team’s assistant coach Courtney Strauthers has said Coach Harris’ undying passion and intensity and knowledge of how to get the best of out her players inspires her to become a head coach.
Although Coach Harris appears fierce on the court, Strauthers did note that Coach Harris has a great sense of humor, she just hides it out on the court.
As for her 100th win, Harris accepted the award with glee and pride, and hopes to go on to win 200 or 300 games, but once again placed her players and team before herself.
“It’s important to me, but when I think of the 100 wins, I think about all of the girls that I coached during that time that were a part of those 100 wins,” Harris said. “Without them I never would have gotten them. So it’s actually a team effort.”