CSU's three seniors lead team into NCAA tourney
By RYAN BLACK
Seniors are expected to be tone-setters.
The more similar each player is, however, the harder it is to make things work. Columbus State doesn't have to worry about this problem. Its three seniors -- Asha Alexander, Chatil Bradford and Tae Smith -- are the team's three leading scorers, yes.
Every bit as integral to this is that each has their own defined role.
Smith is the shooter.
Alexander is the "glue girl" tasked with holding everything together.
And Bradford is the "encouraging enforcer."
Thanks to their combined efforts, the Lady Cougars captured their first Peach Belt Conference tournament championship in 13 years last weekend.
Now, they're looking for even more. The Lady Cougars open play in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Friday night against North Georgia at 8:30 p.m. at Hickory, N.C.
Smith: 'I don'twant to struggle'
The best thing Columbus State coach Jonathan Norton ever did for Smith was shifting her exclusively to shooting guard before the season began.
Last year, Smith had to handle duties at both the point and shooting guard. For someone who admittedly had a habit of "overthinking" on the court, running the offense was overwhelming.
But moving away from a position she had played all her life wasn't easy at first.
"This year was my first year not doing playing the point, so when he first told me I was like, 'Coach, you're taking me out of my comfort zone," she said. "But I guess I've realized that playing the two-guard is really my comfort zone."
The decision has paid off for both the Smith and the team. The senior averages 14.5 points per game, second-best on the team behind Bradford's 15.9. Compared to last year, when she had just arrived as a junior college transfer, Smith's confidence is "higher than ever."
She's not immune to moments of doubt, though.
"There were a couple of games (this year) where I was missing a lot of shots that would make me get down on myself," she said, "but Coach always tells me, 'This is your position. No matter what, keep shooting.' I had to remember that the whole year."
Unlike others on the team, Smith found it hard to revel too much in the conference championship conquest. She has her sights set higher, after all.
"I know we won a championship, but it doesn't feel like it," she said, before alluding to the Division II NCAA tournament. "I want that big one."
Whenever the Lady Cougars' run ends, Smith already has laid out plans for the future. It could go one of three ways. She could jump directly into the work
force upon graduation, with hopes of opening her own day care. She could continue her basketball career overseas. Or she could go into the military.
Unquestionably, Smith has given herself multiple options.
Taught "never to settle," she saw first-hand how a one-track mind can work to your detriment.
"I see what my family has been through and how some of them were just stuck on one thing and had to struggle to find a backup," Smith said. "I don't want to struggle. I want to know exactly what I'm going to do."
Alexander: 'I never cared about the spotlight'
Alexander wasn't always the jack-of-all-trades player she is today.
During her time at Randolph-Clay High School in Cuthbert, Ga., she was one of the team's top two scoring threats as well as doubling as the top defender. It didn't take long for her to make her mark at Columbus State, as she was in the starting lineup from Day 1.
But by the end of her freshman season, she rode the bench and rarely saw the floor.
Difficult as it was for her to stomach, she was able to identify the problem: she simply wasn't scoring enough to justify playing time.
"I was coming from high school when I could do whatever I wanted to do against anybody," she said. "Here, everybody is taller than me and I was (averaging) like two, three points a game and my confidence level was down."
As her confidence has risen, so has her scoring average, which has improved every season. Defining her on scoring alone would undercut her importance to the team. In addition to her 13.8 points per game, she also grabs 5.9 rebounds and owns the best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2) on the team.
On any given night, Alexander morphs into whatever the Lady Cougars need.
"I can score, I play defense, I motivate, I encourage," she said. "I don't have to score and I can still have a good game. I get everybody involved. I do what I have to do. If I don't have to score 15 points and somebody else can be in the spotlight, I'm going to dish it to them all night. But if it's my time, that's when I step up to do it."
That's the way it's always been.
Even when she was helping Randolph-Clay to three consecutive final fours in high school, Alexander wasn't happy unless everyone was involved.
"I was never a selfish player. I never cared about the spotlight," she said.
"I just wanted my team to win, and if I had to give you more shots to get you motivated and feel better about yourself and your game, that's what I'm going to do. I want everybody to feel like they're making a difference."
At the beginning of this season, that meant having a heart-to-heart with the incoming freshmen. As Alexander recalled, the biggest mistake she made during her first year was living and dying on every word Norton said. In one conversation with her mother, Alexander contemplated leaving the team.
She overcame it thanks to Norton, who kept assuring her that her talent would surface provided she kept working.
Long after she's gone, Alexander hopes her teammates will remember her as more than just a basketball player.
"I try to reach out to them on a more personal level outside of the court," she said. "I know they get tired of hearing, 'basketball, basketball , basketball' all the time."
Bradford: 'I just wantto be competitive'
She heard it so often, it echoed in Bradford's head: "If you're not getting offensive fouls, you're not playing hard enough."
At every opportunity, Norton would remind Bradford of this. Whether it was setting screens or driving to the basket, he wanted to see her playing hard -- and in his estimation, offensive fouls were evidence of this.
"I'm the one who's the most physical on the team," Bradford said. "If there is something that needs to be done and you need somebody to stand up and be strong, I'm the person he calls on to do that. I'm physical at all times. It's hard for me not to be."
This goes hand-in-hand with her other job: to be the team's vocal leader. And they don't just hear her voice in times of need. If Bradford isn't talking, something is wrong.
"If you come to a practice or game, you'll always hear me," she said. "I'm the only one who is talking all the time. I'm always trying to encourage. I can't come in the room or be practicing or playing and not saying anything. My team counts on me to encourage them."
Unlike her fellow seniors, Bradford never suffered from a lack of confidence. Quite the opposite.
When she joined the team, she tried to do too much, too soon.
As she recalled, the second after getting the ball -- off a rebound, a pass or in any other fashion --she would start to dribble without a second thought. Inevitably, she would get whistled for traveling.
Bradford didn't deny "reckless" would be an apt description of her freshman tendencies.
"That fits. I just didn't think," she said. "(Assistant) Coach Quacy (Timmons) has put me on this thing where I have to count before I can make a move so I can gather my thoughts and figure out what I'm going to do next."
And a lot of things had been on her mind heading into last week's PBC tournament. Namely, that of her own legacy. Three years in a row, the Lady Cougars fell in their first game of the conference tournament.
That led Bradford to ask numerous questions of herself.
"'I've been here, but what have I really done? What have I contributed to my team? What have the teams done since I've been here that no other team has done?'" she said. "We hadn't gotten better each year because we stayed around the same record."
With the conference tournament title behind her, Bradford was given a moment to reflect before turning her attention to Friday's matchup against North Georgia. Those who watch the team see what the senior trio does, she said. But it's harder to appreciate Carrie Washington's rebounding prowess unless you pay close attention. The same goes for the team's younger players who haven't garnered as many headlines. For a team with eight freshmen on it, Bradford said, what Columbus State has done in 2013-14 is impressive.
Regardless of what happens from here, Bradford said this year's team "has exceeded" her own expectations.
"At no point now could I consider this season a failure," she said. "I just want to be competitive in every game of the (NCAA) tournament. If we lose and we go down fighting, at least I know we all put forth our best effort and maybe shots just weren't falling or we weren't quite good enough that game. But I don't want to go to any game and say we didn't give it our all."