The Wallen triplets are no strangers to winning. They were the core of the record-setting Lauderdale County High School program that had an 84-game winning streak en route to five straight state championships. Now, they are helping North Alabama do the same at the next level.
The Lions are a vastly improved team amid one of the biggest turnarounds in Division II. It is in large part thanks to their newfound triple threat: Emma, Ella and Ivy Wallen.
The trio wears the Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, to represent oldest to youngest. While they may look the same in their physical features, even standing at an identical 5-foot-7, they each bring something different to the table.
“They’re all completely different,” Lions head coach Missy Tiber said. “Ivy is a true point guard and then you got Emma and Ella as wing players. Ella is the only lefty out of the group, which is kind of funny how that worked out. Ella is definitely in charge of the group. She does a lot of the talking for them. Ivy may have been thrown into a leadership role because she is the point guard, but I really think Ella is in charge and gets stuff done.”
UNA already had identical twin sisters on the roster in Brynn and Elise Holden, so the addition of the Wallen sisters made for a special roster before they even stepped on the court. Despite being recruited elsewhere, UNA was ultimately the best landing spot.
“We knew we wanted to stay together, but in the end we wanted to do what was best for all three of us,” Emma Wallen said. “We had a couple offers here and there. Some were just two of us. There were a few with two different sets, and then we had a couple with all three.
“We wanted to stay close to home so our fans from Lauderdale county could come watch us play. And our family. Our brothers play ball and we know how hard it was to watch them play, so we wanted to stay local.”
UNA was a five-win team last season. The Lions have already felt the impact of the Wallen triplets, currently sitting at 15-5. UNA — projected to finish 11th in the Gulf South Conference this preseason — is tied for second place at 9-5 in conference play.
“Everyone asks why we chose here,” Ella said. “We knew it would be tough. We always wanted to win championships. That’s just our mindsets. We wanted to win, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
This roster was looking for leadership. Void of a single senior, junior KeKe Gunter was the lone returner that had scored in double-digits last season. Ivy and Emma, known for their scoring prowess, have changed that.
“We knew that there weren’t as many older players on the team,” Ivy Wallen said. “That helped. We knew we were going to play with each longer. It was a shock that we all came in and we played like we have and made the impact that we have. We planned on it, but when it actually was a reality, it wasn’t what we expected at first.”
Ivy is leading the GSC with 20.9 points a night, while adding 5.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest as well. Emma — who is first off the bench as the Lions' key reserve — is chipping in 11.4 points per game. Together, they have been a crucial part of an offense that has improved by 10 points an outing this season, a number seemingly on the rise each week.
The turnaround led by this young core of Lions has everyone a little surprised, but excited as well.
“When we recruited these three, one thing that we talked about was that they have a history of winning championships,” Tiber said. “That’s kind of who they are. When you are trying to build a program, you are trying to surround yourselves with kids that know how to win and what it takes. You can’t teach kids to be competitive, you can’t teach kids to have what they have. We knew that they were going to come in with that mentality and help us win games. Did we expect to be where we are at right now? Probably not. At the same time once you start winning and you gain that confidence, you get going.”
The Lions have dropped their last two games by a combined total of four points. They showed fight in each loss, seeing an incredible 20-9 fourth quarter fall just short against Delta State and dropping a heartbreaker in overtime to Alabama Huntsville. This team is seemingly well beyond their years, as many a young team could crumble in similar situations.
“It was really good that we stepped up,” Ivy said. “But we should have started that way. It showed a lot about our team that we can come back.”
The Lions have eight games left to pull off a remarkable feat. They are in the position to go from the cellar of the GSC last season all the way to the tournament this season, without any senior leadership to guide the way. The most important difference this year is that the Wallens have the Lions believing.
“Last year, a bunch of them didn’t believe in what was possible,” Emma said. “I think that when we started to practice, we saw things changing. The first couple games of the season, and then heading into Christmas, we realized we could do big things here. I think we do have a chance as a team collectively, because we play so well together. We need to stay grounded and play our game.”