Goal Oriented

Reflecting on a record season, UAB women’s basketball aims higher
Story by Cary Estes • Photos by UAB Athletics
Photo of Deanna Kuzmanic shooting basketball; headline: Goal Oriented
Reflecting on a record season, UAB women’s basketball aims higher
Story by Cary Estes • Photos by UAB Athletics
At first, guard Deanna Kuzmanic (pictured above) wasn’t sure she should believe the news. Moments earlier, she and the UAB women’s basketball team had defeated Texas-San Antonio, securing a slice of the 2017-2018 Conference USA title. But her father stopped her as she ran joyfully off the court. He reported that Western Kentucky (WKU) had lost its regular-season finale. That meant the Blazer women had sole possession of the C-USA crown, the first conference championship in program history.
“I didn’t know if he was right about that,” Kuzmanic recalls with a grin. “You know how dads can be sometimes.”
Then Kuzmanic joined her teammates outside the locker room, and her heart began to race. Head Coach Randy Norton glanced around and asked, “How would you feel if I told you we just won the conference championship outright?”
“They just started screaming,” Norton says, smiling at the memory. “The emotion was so raw and pure. To see that joy when you’ve worked so hard for something made it even more special.”

Photo of Coach Randy Norton cheering on team at Bartow Arena gameRandy Norton

Reasons to believe

The entire run was special. Not only did the Blazers go 27-7 to set a program record for most victories in a season, but they also won nearly as many games as in the previous two seasons combined (30).
Norton says those back-to-back 15-win campaigns were key to their 2017-2018 success. “You don’t win a championship in one year,” he explains. “You win long before you raise the trophy. Every single day has to be a championship effort.” The team’s progress over two years generated an air of optimism entering last season. With a goal of winning the conference, the team adopted a mantra: “Believe it can be done.”

Inspiring space

The first inkling that last year would be different may have come on the summer day when the team first stepped into their new locker room at Bartow Arena. With surprised smiles and excited chatter, the players explored the sleek space that features amenities including a nutrition station and 70-inch TV for watching game film. Support from Blazer fans Bill and Jackie Tevendale and Lois Luther made the renovations possible.
“That meant a lot to our players,” Norton says. “They spend many hours there, and it gives them a sense of pride. It was a big piece of the puzzle in building a championship program.”

Photo of player Miyah Barnes dribbling the ball during a Bartow Arena gameMiyah Barnes

Winning within reach

On the court, the amped-up Blazers started off with an encouraging 11-2 in nonconference play with close losses to Indiana and Memphis. But a major challenge awaited as they began the C-USA schedule with consecutive road trips to Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee State, followed by a home game against perennial conference contender WKU.
The Blazers proceeded to win all three games by an average margin of 13 points, and suddenly the ambitious goals of the preseason seemed obtainable. Norton says the players point to those victories as “the defining moment where we said we can win this league.”

Trust and faith

There were a few setbacks along the way, but the Blazers bounced back strong. For example, they followed up a 17-point home loss to Southern Miss by winning the next seven games. The key, according to several players, was the team’s unity in the face of adversity.
“We bonded like no team I’ve ever been on,” says Kuzmanic, a senior math major from Mount Prospect, Illinois. “That helped us succeed on the court, because we had trust and faith in one another. We’d give up a shot to make an extra pass.”
Junior forward Rachael Childress agrees. A Moulton, Alabama, native majoring in business management, Childress says one reason she chose UAB is that “it feels like family here,” referring to her teammates as sisters. “We do stuff together all the time off the court,” she says. “If we have problems, we talk and get rid of them as soon as we can. There’s no drama. We’ve embraced growing closer to each other.”
The end of last season tested that bond: The Blazers lost twice in an eight-day span to fall one game behind WKU in the standings, with only two games remaining. UAB would need help simply to share the conference crown. An outright title seemed unlikely. Kuzmanic says that was one of the toughest moments.
But “there was no wavering,” notes junior guard Miyah Barnes, a communications major from Memphis, Tennessee. “We had to stay the course, because we knew anything could happen. And anything did happen.” Two straight Blazer wins and a surprising two straight losses from WKU made UAB the C-USA champion.
“We worked so hard to put ourselves in position to win the title, and then we felt we had lost it,” Kuzmanic says. “To get it back was amazing.”

Photo of player Rachael Childress jumping toward the goal during a Bartow Arena gameRachael Childress

More history ahead?

Unfortunately, a loss in the championship game of the C-USA Tournament meant the Blazers did not make the NCAA Tournament field. But that hasn’t dimmed the team’s optimism and enthusiasm. Instead, they have set new, loftier goals for the 2018-2019 season.
Norton, now in his fifth year of coaching the women’s team, is challenging his athletes to sharpen their play, focusing on their transition game and motion offense, and then improving their rebounding and half-court defense. And he describes the four freshmen joining UAB as “outstanding, high-character, extremely skilled” players. “I want everyone to be their best individually, and then take that and make our team the best it can be,” he says.
“Our mantra this year is ‘no limits,’” Norton adds. “Yeah, we want to win the championship again. But what else is out there for us?”

Published September 2018