FARMVILLE, Va. — When it comes to winning championship games, the key is mind over matter — at least that's what it boils down to for the Longwood University women’s basketball team.
Some players might have thought Head Coach Rebecca Tillett had actually lost her mind when she first asked them to join a team that had only won three games in her debut season at the school in 2018.
But Tillett, who comes from a family of coaches, said part of taking on her new leadership role at Longwood included thinking about the people who were going to be on the journey to rebuild the program with her.
“It takes special people to say, you know what, I want to be the first one to build something special, or I want to be the one to rebuild it. And they all did that,” said Tillett.
Some of those special people included guards Anne-Hamilton Leroy, Kyla McMakin, Adrianna Ship and point guard Tra’Dayja “Day Day” Smith — who all joined the team as a transformational recruit class.
Since then, the team has collectively and individually shattered records in both the school’s program and the Big South Conference.
For McMakin, a Virginia Beach-native and the Big South Freshman of the Year, the decision to join the redeveloping team came down to one tiny, edible detail during her recruitment visit.
“The real kicker was in the hotel room, they put my favorite trail mix,” said McMakin. “A very specific trail mix.”
That tiny detail is what let McMakin know they truly cared about her like family, which was something she was really looking for in a team.
But this team is not just any close-knit family. They’re a family surrounded by a home of mindfulness on a foundation of women empowerment and the pursuit of excellence.
Tillett said to emphasize that, they often have strong women figures come and talk to the team — something that particularly grew during the pandemic when the whole world shifted to connecting on Zoom.
“If you constantly are looking at strong women as examples in your life, and they're sharing their story and adversity that they've overcome, I think that's been a big part of, you know, our trajectory,” said Tillett.
Empowering the women on her team, Tillett said, is part of the work that built their current success.
“One of the things we say in the recruiting process is come dream, you know, your biggest dream, accomplish it and then we're gonna push you to the next biggest dream,” said Tillett.
And that’s exactly what this team has done. In three years, they went from the bottom of the Big South to conference champs.
“To go from that to being here. It's just, it's like surreal to think about and it's just cool to be part of the process that is making Longwood this great, you know, basketball-dominant place,” said McMakin. “It's a real moment. And it's like, the happiest I think I've ever been.”
Their conquest hasn’t just launched from their double-digit scoring weapons found in McMakin and senior forward, Akila Smith, or the new focus on perfecting their defense. Both Coach Tilett and McMakin will tell you, it’s all in the team’s mindset.
Mentality has become so important to the program, they began to work with sports psychologists this season. It’s something Tillett said was a huge financial investment made possible by donors, but well worth it.
“There's so much you can overthink about in the game of basketball, and in life, in general. And I think being mindful about the moments, not trying to worry about everything that could happen and everything that should have happened,” explained McMakin. “You can't worry about that missed shot, because then it’s gonna affect your next one. You kind of have to just focus on the play that's going on right then and there.”
After losing to Campbell University twice in the regular season, Tillett said it was hard not to focus on their battle against them in the Big South Conference Tournament.
“I couldn't stop thinking or talking about Campbell,” said Tillett.
Initially, she took the approach of just focusing on her own team, even going as far as not mentioning Campbell’s name anymore.
Assistant Coach Jessica Olmstead — who Tillett said is a big Ohio State football fan — took it one step further.
“Ohio State, when they play Michigan football, they take, they put a red X on every ‘M’ on the entire campus, like signs, everything. And she told me that story. And I said, ‘we need to do that, we need to do that if we advance and Campbell advances, and we're playing in the final.’” said Tillett. “So on our scout, there were literally no letter ‘C's,’ which took her hours and hours to do. It was just another part of you know, we have to be about us. We can't be about this, you know, battle.”
Whether it was the women’s pivot in defensive play, psychology or both we’ll never truly know. But what we do know is, it worked. They crushed Campbell in the Big South championship game 86-47.
Once the Longwood men’s basketball team won their Big South championship game on Sunday, McMakin said there was no way they weren’t going to win theirs.
Both teams will harness their horsepower as they make their NCAA Division I Tournament debuts for the first time in Longwood’s history.
It’s only the fourth time both the women’s and men’s basketball teams from one school have won their individual Big South championships in the same year.
"To see them win in a dominant performance just like us, that was like amazing," said men's senior guard, DeShaun Wade. "It was just like yea this is written, like this is meant for both of us."
From now until “Selection Sunday,” Tillett said the team will be focusing on perfecting their defensive game, and living in the moment of being a championship team.
There will be a Selection Sunday watch party for the Lancers in Richmond at River City Roll starting at 5:30 p.m.
But when you see their name on your brackets this year, don’t call them a Cinderella story. Because these women aren’t trying on glass slippers — they’re lacing up their shoes to break glass ceilings.