At UNO, winless season tests patience, character

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Losing the first 27 games of her college career has taught New Orleans freshman guard Octavia Wilson quite a bit about how much basketball means to her.

She’s not about to recommend other athletes experience an entire season without a victory, which is what will happen if UNO doesn’t win one of its final two games this week. She only hopes she’ll be able to look back on this season as a test of character on her way to future success.

”If you play at this level and you really care about it, you’re not going to give up, regardless of your record,” said Wilson, a native of Nicholasville, Ky., who finished high school ranked fifth in career scoring for Lexington Catholic.

”It definitely helped me, even at the low points, to try to just stay positive and never give up, because you can’t quit on your team,” Wilson added. ”I’ve never been through something like this before, so it’s kind of like a test of your strength and your will, how much you really want it and how much you love basketball.”

The Privateers play Thursday night at Lamar, which beat them 80-53 in mid-January, and close out the season Saturday at Sam Houston State, which beat them 78-47, also in January.

Yet there are signs UNO is improving.

Last Saturday, the Privateers raced to a 22-7 lead over Southland Conference foe Northwestern State and still led by six before being shutout for the last 4:40 in a 51-48 loss.

Late-season efforts like that is why UNO athletic director Derek Morel gives no indication he’ll fire head coach Keeshawn Davenport.

The near upset of the Demons ”at this point in the season, when it’s easy to give up – the fact that they didn’t on Saturday is a huge piece,” Morel said. ”Sometimes having patience and working through some things will really pay off, and I’m hoping that’s where we’re headed because we have a plan.”

Davenport arrived at UNO as a player in 1997 and has been there ever since, working her way up as an assistant coach until being named interim head coach three seasons ago.

”I don’t have any worries about my job at all,” Davenport said. ”I recruit like I’m going to be here, understanding that I’m going to turn this program around, one day or another.”

Davenport said she won’t succumb to ”doom and gloom,” but instead preaches persistence and perseverance – lessons she hopes will serve her players even beyond the court.

”They’re going to encounter things bigger than an 0-27 record in life,” Davenport said. ”It’s what you do after that. There’s no time to hang heads.”

As a head coach, she’s been confronted with unique challenges resulting in large part from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The storm drastically cut enrollment and led former top administrators to enact a cost-cutting plan to leave Division I athletics in favor of Division III. A subsequent plan aimed for Division II before current President Peter Fos, appointed in 2012, recommitted to Division I.

By then, the damage was done.

When Davenport took over as interim coach in the spring of 2011, she had no scholarships. She had three scholarships her second season, and only this season did she have the full complement of 15.

She used 14, six on freshmen, five of whom receive regular playing time. Wilson is among four first-year players averaging more than 15 minutes per game. Women generally don’t leave school early for the pros, so most teams have strong senior leadership. At UNO, no player has been on the roster more than one previous season, putting UNO way behind in terms of building chemistry.

As the losses mounted, Wilson said, persevering hasn’t always been easy for players.

”People have talked about transferring and you could tell some days in practice people kind of looked like they’re not really there,” Wilson said.

Wilson said players also can’t help but wonder what so much losing means for their head coach, but Morel insists, ”We feel confident in her. She’s a UNO grad who’s been here through thick and thin.”

Davenport said coaches cannot allow themselves to be defined by win-loss records when so much of their job deals with building up young adults. Still, she describes herself as ultra-competitive.

”Who wants to lose? Come on. But I’m not going to let (the record) define me. That’s just a phase that we’re going through,” Davenport said. ”It’s just the beginning of a beautiful story, and I don’t think it’s going to take really long to happen – I really don’t.”