Fire end season in historic fashion

The Southeastern Fire won its sixth straight conference championship on Feb. 26 at The Furnace.

The Southeastern Fire won its sixth straight conference championship on Feb. 26 at The Furnace.

The Southeastern women’s basketball team ended its campaign with the best regular season the program has had in the last four years.

The Fire, the top-ranked NAIA team in the nation for a portion of the year, ended the season with a 33-2 record and advanced to the NAIA Final Four before losing in the semifinals — it’s the eighth year in a row the program has won at least 24 games.

“I’m going to go back to the fact that this is one of the most complete teams that we’ve ever had,” Southeastern head coach Tim Hays said. “Every single player on the floor made a big play, whether it’s a rebound, a loose ball, a defensive possession where they contained well, or knocking down a big shot.

“Those things all add up. We’ve been talking about a go-to, which is that concept of, ‘I am because you are,’ and it means we are completely connected.”

The Fire faced some adversity earlier in the year that could have compromised that connectiveness.

When the new year rolled around, Southeastern, ranked No. 5 at the time, had to deal with tragedy when an auto accident on Interstate 4 nearly killed point guard Bekki Kalaydjiev. Guards Marta Aranda and Tahanee Bennet were also involved in the accident.

Southeastern still managed to go 5-0 out of the gate before losing to Bryan College on Nov. 6 — a team that went undefeated through Feb. 25 and lost to Thomas More University, the eventual NAIA women’s basketball champions in the tournament..

Still, three straight wins followed, including a 124-41 thrashing of Thomas University on Nov. 20, when graduate big Angela Perry scored 28 points — her second highest point total of the season; she had 34 points in a game vs. Loyola University (Louisiana) on Dec. 10.

Forward Leilah Vigil, a stable inside presence, and Rebecca Cook, a savvy do-it-all guard, returned from injury in January and February, in time for a heavy dosage of conference games.

Hays was now able to change his substitution rotation, often putting in five players in at time every three to four minutes. Southeastern would keep on winning, eventually rising to No. 1 in the nation in February.

“We chose to make some adjustments in terms of how we were subbing in and out to really try and fully utilize our depth on our team. And those adjustments paid off,” Hays said.

These adjustments paid dividends heading into the Sun Conference Tournament.

Aranda earned the conference tournament MVP after posting 15 points and six steals against rival Webber in an 88-58 win on Feb. 26. That game followed a 22-point, 6-assist showing vs. Ave Maria in a 111-51 blowout and the Fire claimed its sixth conference championship in a row.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Aranda said. “Webber is such a good team. We did what we had to do and put every piece together. I wouldn’t be able to get the award without my teammates. I’m so proud of all of them.”

Aranda was one of six players named to first-team all-conferencet team. The others were: Perry, Vigil, Bennell, Haley Howarth and Raegan Linster.

Perry was selected Sun Conference Player of the Year, which is the third straight and sixth time in the last seven seasons the Player of the Year came from Southeastern. She averaged 18.7 points on 57% shooting and 6.5 rebounds in her first year with Southeastern.

Southeastern would go on to advance to the national semifinal game versus No. 5 Dordt, before falling short, 53-52.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Southeastern finishes 33-2 and advances to the NAIA national semifinals

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