Paine College's road to the Division II Tournament began in Birmingham, Ala. Literally.
On the way to each of their Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament games last week, the Lady Lions would pass Arkadelphia Road. The significance didn't kick in until after they won their second conference tournament in a row.
Paine earned a trip back to the NCAA Division II Tournament. The South regional will be held at Henderson State University in - where else? - Arkadelphia, Ark.
The ironies don't stop there.
Paine (22-8) faces Henderson State (26-4) at 7:30 Friday night. The two teams matched up last year in the Division II Tournament, with the Lady Reddies coming away with an 80-72 victory.
The Lady Lions also defeated Fort Valley State for the second season in the row in the SIAC Tournament championship game. Paine is 0-4 against the Lady Wildcats during the past two regular seasons.
"I think most of the people on the team wanted to play Fort Valley again, because they said it was luck the first time," guard Savoyia Barrett said. "We wanted to prove to them that it wasn't luck."
Whether it's luck or not is irrelevant. Paine is putting together its finest season ever with the most wins in school history.
The Lady Lions entered Birmingham last week trying to defend the school's first-ever conference tournament title. Paine knocked off Tuskegee and Benedict before facing Fort Valley State in the finals.
Point guard Chantal Murray scored 19 points, while her teammates built a double-digit lead midway through the second half and never looked back
"When it comes crunch time, we do what we got to do," guard Savoyia Barrett said.
Forward Kisha Lucette earned tournament MVP honors after averaging 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. She said the thrill of victory wasn't the same this time around.
"It seemed like we were more excited the first time we won it," Lucette said. "Going to the tournament this year, we knew it could be ours. There wasn't any ifs, ands or buts about it. After we won it this year, it was like we knew we were supposed to win it."
The next step for Paine is to win a game in the Division II Tournament.
Should they win three in a row, the Lady Lions will break new ground with an Elite Eight appearance.
But first, Paine will have to find a way to hand Henderson State its first home loss of the season.
"We know how it is and we know how we have to come out and play," Murray said. "Like people in our conference, we have to jump on them from the beginning of the game to the end of the game."
Paine coach Selina Kohn said she can tell a difference in her team's demeanor this time.
"Last year, we were in here just so happy go lucky. Today, we're a little more serious about what we've got to do," she said. "We've got to have the same focus we had for the conference tournament."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.