On Aug. 21, 2016, women’s basketball assistant coach Weston Jameson posted on Instagram a picture of the team’s first meeting of the school year — a cookout around the pool at the home of head coach Tim Kirby. Along with the team photo, Jameson wrote, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. We are excited to go on this journey together!”
Lady Bison basketball took many journeys during its 2016-17 season, the most successful in program history. Its ultimate journey, to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Columbus, Ohio, was not quite 1,000 miles — only 677 —but seven months to the day from the time the photo was taken at the cookout, the Lady Bisons accomplished something none of them will ever forget.
Not only was it the successful journey that made this team great, but it also was the fortress they established at Rhodes-Reaves Field House.
The team’s first trip to Missouri was enough to make Lady Bison fans wonder what this season had in store. The opener was against Minnesota State Moorhead in Kansas City, Missouri, a neutral site that allowed the two Central Region opponents to meet halfway. The teams met at Johnson County Community College and were ready for a 2 p.m. tipoff, but something was missing — officials. Delayed more than an hour, the team returned to the locker room where it sang songs, did the mannequin challenge and bonded until it was time to play. The game actually began with only one official (a second arrived later). Harding won the game 62-54 led by junior Syndey Layrock’s 25 points. Moorhead won its next 15 games and ended its season in Searcy of all places at the Central Region Tournament.
The victory over Moorhead was the first of four straight to open the season. Two of those wins came at home, giving a prelude of things to come.
The team suffered its first loss Nov. 22 in a road game at 16th-ranked Drury in Springfield, Missouri. The Lady Bisons bounced back with two more GAC victories on the road to move to 4-0 in conference play.
Harding’s second loss of the season came Dec. 6 at Christian Brothers. It was the last game starting guard Riley Rose would play for
a while. Rose, a Searcy native and a transfer from Missouri State, had to miss the next 12 games due to a heart condition.
Just before Christmas break, the Lady Bisons started an eight-game winning streak with a home victory over Crowley’s Ridge and then reeled off seven straight GAC wins to start 2017. The winning streak came on the heels of tragedy that struck New Year’s Day when Kennedy Hogue, the 17-year-old sister of sophomore Caroline Hogue, died of complications from ulcerative colitis. The entire team attended the funeral, and Kennedy’s memory helped inspire the team the rest of the season.
“The team immediately went to be with her,” says Kirby. “You could see how that was comforting to Caroline and her family. After that, her teammates individually made sure that she had the support she needed.”
In the second game of the new year, a 72-69 win Jan. 7, Harding trailed Southeastern Oklahoma 65-39 with 1:03 left in the third quarter. According to sports analytics website Inpredictable.com, a team trailing by 26 points with only 11 minutes left to play wins only once in 250 games. Those odds could not take into account how special this Harding team was. Sophomore Sydnie Jones made a layup with 1:10 left to play putting Harding ahead for good.
Another pivotal game in the season came a week later. Harding used another fourth-quarter comeback to send its road game against Ouachita Baptist into overtime — actually two. Freshman Peyton Padgett had arguably her best game of the season and led the Lady Bisons with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
The eight-game winning streak ended with a one-point loss to Southwestern Oklahoma on the road Jan. 26. The second-longest winning streak in program history then began with a 67-64 victory over Northwestern Oklahoma in Alva and did not end until this team advanced further than any previous Harding women’s basketball team ever had.
In the fifth victory of the streak, the team welcomed back Rose and defeated Arkansas-Monticello 57-43 in Searcy. The next game was a 64-62 win over 21st-ranked Arkansas Tech in Russellville. The second win over Arkansas Tech gave the Lady Bisons 20 wins for the season and a three-game lead in the GAC standings.
Harding clinched its third GAC regular-season championship in the last four seasons two games later with a 49-46 victory at Southern Arkansas. An 84-72 road victory over Southeastern Oklahoma secured the Lady Bisons 20th conference win, and the team closed the regular season with a 61-49 road win at East Central.
Boasting a 24-3 regular season record and 21-1 conference record, Harding reaped the rewards at the GAC Tournament banquet. Kirby was named GAC Coach of the Year; Hogue, who averaged 14.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in conference games, was Newcomer of the Year; and A’ndrea Haney, who had 47 steals in 22 GAC games, was Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
Kirby believed his team had a special focus that allowed them to achieve so much during the regular season.
“Anytime you are making a run like that, it’s hard to know why,” he says. “With this team, they never got caught up in what was coming next. They only thought about the game they were about to play. Then when the season is over, you look back later and think: ‘Man, that was some kind of run!’ That kind of thinking also helped us once tournament play started.”
With the regular season championship in its pocket, Harding moved on to the GAC Tournament in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where they met up with an old friend and good-luck charm, James Droz, a student with special needs the team adopted in 2012 during its annual community service bowling outing prior to the tournament.
Droz had plenty of reason to cheer for the Lady Bisons again this season. Harding opened the tournament at Bruin Field House with a resounding 77-45 victory over No. 8 seed Arkansas-Monticello. In the semifinals, Harding cruised to a 67-48 win over No. 5 seed East Central, setting up the Lady Bisons’ third meeting with No. 2 seed Arkansas Tech in the finals.
It was a classic.
Arkansas Tech’s Cheyenne North made a layup with 1:27 left to give the Golden Suns a 73-69 lead. They did not score again.
Lady Bison Haney went coast-to-coast and made a left-handed layup with 1:18 left to cut Tech’s lead to two. She had a steal on Tech’s next possession, and the Golden Suns fouled Hogue, who made both free throws and tied
the game at 73.
With 16 seconds left, Tech’s Calli White missed a driving layup. Hogue rebounded and found Rose racing down the court. Rose passed to Padgett in the left corner. Her attempt at a game winner was deflected, and Jones came from the far side of the court, stepped in front of a Tech player, pulled down the rebound, spun to her left, and laid the game-winning layup off the glass. The points were Jones’ 29th and 30th of the game.
“That game was Sydnie Jones’ coming out party,” Jameson says. “She had been getting better through the year, but that game she figured out that she could be the best player on the floor.”
After a serious dogpile near midcourt, Harding cut down the nets, claiming its second GAC Tournament championship in three seasons. Jones was named tournament MVP, and Haney and Hogue were named to the All-Tournament team. With the victory, Harding earned an automatic berth into the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament. The next questions were: Where would the tournament be and whom would Harding play?
The NCAA announced those answers later that night: Searcy and Arkansas Tech — again. Harding earned the right to host even though it was the No. 2 seed. Top-seeded Emporia State plays its home basketball games at White Auditorium in Emporia, Kansas. The arena also hosts the Kansas State High School Activities Association 6A state basketball championship the same weekend as the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament. So hosting duties went to the No. 2 seed: Harding.
The Lady Bisons entered the Central Region Tournament a perfect 12-0 at home. It was only the second time in program history that women’s basketball won all its home games. They needed three more home wins at Rhodes-Reaves Field House to claim their first Central Region championship.
In game one, the team faced a familiar opponent. For the fourth time and second-straight game, Harding took down Arkansas Tech 59-46. The two teams have a long history that began in 1984, and much of it was dominated by Tech. The teams played at least once every season after that, and Harding did not earn its fourth win against Tech until 2014, 30 years later. But Harding owned the 2016-17 season. The fourth win over Tech sent Harding into the regional semifinals against 19th-ranked Central Missouri of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
Harding scored 13 of the game’s final 15 points to come from behind and defeat Central Missouri 66-58. Rose’s basket with 3:06 left snapped a 56-56 tie and put Harding ahead for good. A pair of Hogue free throws pushed the lead to 60-56, and the Lady Bisons made six free throws down the stretch to win the game.
The win moved the team into the regional championship where it faced the nation’s sixth-ranked team, Emporia State. The first half looked bleak for the Lady Bisons, trailing 38-24 at halftime, and Emporia State pushed its lead to 18 points early in the third quarter. But this Lady Bison team had another surprise in store.
Harding stormed back, using its vaunted inside game and a smothering defense, and with 41 seconds left, Jones showed off her late-game magic again hitting a layup that gave the team its first lead since early in the first quarter. An Emporia State turnover and foul sent Rose to the free throw line where she made one of two. Emporia’s 3-pointer at the buzzer missed, and Harding won 58-56 before what many believe was the loudest crowd ever to see a game at Rhodes-Reaves Field House for its first-ever 30-win season.
Finishing 15-0 at home, the team headed to its first NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Columbus, Ohio.
The trip to Columbus proved interesting. The NCAA sent the Lady Bisons to Columbus in four different groups with layovers in three different airports. With no delays, however, the entire team arrived at John Glenn Columbus International Airport.
Mentions of the Elite Eight were visible throughout the city — billboards, ads in the airport and especially in the team hotel, Sheraton Columbus Capitol Square, where even the key cards for the rooms displayed a welcome to the Elite Eight.
“It felt different than a normal trip,” Jameson says. “Columbus gave us a police escort to the hotel. That makes you feel pretty special. They did a lot for the teams to make them feel important.”
One of the highlights of the trip for the team was the pretournament banquet held at COSI Columbus, a science museum and research center. The teams witnessed science experiments and viewed animals from the Columbus Zoo. The most memorable part of the night might have been the introduction of Mason Parker to the Lady Bisons. Parker, a bouncy, energetic 8-year-old, is part of the Make-A-Wish program and immediately became part of the team. He joined the team at events, practices, games, and even helped encourage them pregame and postgame in the locker room.
Parker made a special connection with several players on the team including Haney. In a Facebook post following the tournament, Haney said, “I cannot put into words how blessed I, and my whole team, was to get to know Mason! What a joy he was to be around. He has such a positive attitude that was so fun to be around!! He was definitely our good luck charm! I will never forget this experience and the impression this sweet boy made on my heart!!!”
After a day of events and practice, Harding was ready for game day at host Ohio Dominican University. The Lady Bisons received the No. 4 seed in the tournament and took on No. 5 seed Queens College from Queens, New York. Queens entered the tournament ranked 15th nationally and featuring Madison Rowland, the NCAA Division II national player of the year.
Buoyed by a large traveling contingent from Searcy, including Harding’s “Sixth Man Band” and cheerleading squad, the team erased an early deficit and turnover problems to race ahead of Queens and claim a 73-69 victory. Jones led Harding with 22 points and 17 rebounds, the most points and rebounds by any Lady Bison in an NCAA Tournament game.
The victory sent the Lady Bisons into the Final Four and a matchup against the nation’s No. 1 team, undefeated Ashland. Ashland is based in nearby Ashland, Ohio, only 80 miles away from Columbus. The two teams battled before a national television audience on CBS Sports Network with Harding losing 90-77 to the team that went on to win the national championship. Hogue led Harding with 24 points and 12 rebounds in the game.
The loss ended the journey but not before Lady Bison basketball’s seven-month odyssey resulted in their best season ever.
-Scott Goode, assistant athletic director for sports information