March 20, 2009

By Lara Boyko
Special to NCAA.com

On Monday when the NCAA Women’s Basketball Selection Committee made their yearly announcement that everyone waits for in hopes that their bubble doesn’t burst, there was one team in Clarkesville, Tenn., that already knew what was coming and happy about it.

“It’s so exciting,” said coach Carrie Daniel of No. 16 seed Austin Peay in the Berkeley Regional who made it into the tournament for the first time since 2004 after winning the Ohio Valley Conference title this year. “Not too many people out there thought we would be where we are. We were a pre-season No. 9 pick, our conference only takes eight to our tournament and we were the No. 5 seed in our tournament. We had to go on the road to play the No. 4 seed and after we beat them, we had to face the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to get the automatic bid. It was that unbelievable run to get us into the field of 64.”

The Lady Governors’ run may have been unbelievable, but it is how the players used their regular season experience in order to make it back to the one tournament that everyone talks about at this time of the year.

“It was all heart, determination and believing as these young ladies just believed all the way,” said Daniels, who is in her second year as head coach at Austin Peay. “I think it was a culmination of learning from our mistakes throughout the season and it was a matter of the growing of our youth that got us to where we are right now.”

This youthful determination comes in the form of one senior, one junior and 11 players that compromise the freshmen and sophomore classes. Yet even with as much responsibility that sole senior April Thomas carries this season, she is special for other reasons.

“My mom played at Austin Peay so that was one of my goals back in high school of why I wanted to play here,” said Thomas of her mom Sandra Dailey who played at Austin Peay from 1977-79.

“She is my first recruit and I brought her back to Clarksville,” said Daniels of Thomas who spent her first two years playing at Chattanooga State Community College. “After I watched her play on her junior college team, I saw talent in her. When you have talent locally, I’ve always thought you want to keep that talent close. When that opportunity presented itself to bring April back home, to me it was no brainer.”

Thomas, along with her teammates, is having quite a memorable season playing in front of local fans. With a team leading 13.4 points per game and nine rebounds per game, the Lady Governors have proved why underdogs should never be taken for granted.

In addition to getting some big-time numbers from Thomas, the Lady Governors also get big-time play from one of the shortest players on the roster.

“[Five-foot-five freshman] Emily Pollock has been unbelievable and is a stick of dynamite,” said Daniels. “What she does is immeasurable. You can’t look at her and underestimate her size, which I think has been done a lot this year. She doesn’t back down from anybody and there have even been times where we have had to pull her back a little bit because she gets so intense.

“She is a fundamental point guard who wants to set up the offense. She doesn’t like to score, but rather wants to deliver the ball, make the flashy pass and gets the fans into the game.”

Along with getting the respect of her coaches and opposing teams, Pollock has also earned the respect of her teammates who tower above and once doubted her.

“When she comes in, she gives us a lift on offense and defense,” said Thomas. “The first day I saw her I thought ‘Wow, is she really on our team because she is so small?’ Then when I saw her play I was impressed.”

Just like in Hollywood where big surprises can come from little known movies, Austin Peay is hoping for the same during March when they face No. 1 Duke in the first round of play in East Lansing, Mich., this weekend.

“We knew that it was going to be a tremendous team no matter who we drew and would be a tough task,” said Daniels, who was a player on the first Austin Peay team that went to the NCAA Tournament in 1996. “We are not just happy to get into the tournament and show up to play. Instead we want to give Duke the best game we can. We are going to prepare our team for 40 minutes, compete at the utmost level and represent Austin Peay to the best of our capabilities.”