MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Once NCAA tournament regulars, the Alabama and Auburn women’s basketball teams are both balancing the pains and promise of youth.
The teams will meet Sunday in the regular-season finale at Auburn Arena with the only spoils being bragging’ rights and, for the loser, last place in the Southeastern Conference. It should still be intense since the last meeting was marred by a fight.
On the bright side, the Tigers (11-17, 2-13 SEC) and Crimson Tide (13-17, 2-13) will each only send one senior to the court.
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”You always want to look toward the future and see the brightness of the future,” said Terri Williams-Flournoy, Auburn’s fourth-year coach. ”That’s the thing we’ve been having to deal with, with such a young team. A lot of times lack of leadership, lack of maturity.
”And you’re asking the young group to do more, that usually coming from high school has never really had to work that hard to get what they wanted. It kind of came easily. That’s not how it works in the SEC.”
That goes for the coaches, too. Williams-Flournoy and Alabama’s Kristy Curry both brought winning backgrounds and NCAA tournament history to their current rebuilding jobs.
Both programs fell on hard times after past success. Curry knew reviving an Alabama program that hasn’t been to the tournament since 1999 was no quick fix, but she remains unwaveringly upbeat.
”I’m having the most fun in my career I’ve ever had,” the former Purdue and Texas Tech coach said. ”The challenge of this situation and the opportunity. We are thrilled about being here and excited about turning the program around. But it doesn’t happen overnight.
”It hasn’t been to the tournament in 15 years. There’s a lot to be fixed. There’s a reason why we’re here.”
Curry has managed to increase fan interest in the program, with season ticket sales rising 53 percent from last season.
Auburn, which made three straight national title games from 1988-90 under Hall of Famer Joe Ciampi, has struggled since winning the SEC title under Nell Fortner in 2009. The Tigers haven’t cracked the NCAA field since then.
Rick Moody led Alabama to eight NCAA tournaments in 16 seasons, including the 1994 Final Four. He and Ciampi both left within a year of each other, and the programs haven’t been the same since.
Led by sophomore Ashley Williams, Alabama loses fewer than nine points a game total from seniors Briana Hutchen and Sharin Rivers, who sustained a torn knee ligament in Sunday’s loss to Florida.
The Tigers are scheduled to lose only one senior reserve. Auburn has snapped a 14-game skid with two straight wins, and Williams-Flournoy said her team is starting to grasp how many points a relentless pressure defense can generate. The Tigers are last in the league in scoring (Alabama is 12th).
Tempers flared in the rivals’ last meeting, when Alabama’s Breanna Hayden and Auburn’s Hasina Muhammad were both suspended for two games after throwing punches.
Muhammad, the team’s top scorer in SEC games, was dismissed before returning.
Williams-Flournoy isn’t worried about a repeat flare-up.
”We’ve got games to win,” she said. ”We don’t have time for all that.”
Reviving programs and trying to finish strong in the SEC tournament is hard enough.
Curry said it’s not without rewards.
”There’s so many little joys each and every day,” she said. ”We see our kids constantly improving. There’s so many little victories maybe that aren’t showing up on the scoreboard right now, but we certainly have things in perspective on where we’re at and where we’re headed, and we’re excited about it.”