Being a Division I college athlete is a fun but challenging experience that can take a toll on you.
Participating in the countless hours of practice time that it takes to compete at the highest level while also trying to juggle school work and enjoy free time with friends can be nearly impossible.
When the time in the gym and weight room are followed by humiliating losses, it can be devastating and make it tough to keep fighting.
For the majority of the Clemson women’s basketball team, losing was all they had experienced during their college careers entering the 2018-19 season.
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Over the past three years the Tigers were a combined 4-44 in ACC games. During that same three-year stretch Clemson lost 12 games by at least 30 points, five games by at least 40 and two games by at least 50.
“Coming from high school I didn’t lose much. ... Then I came here, my freshman year we were 4-32. We didn’t win a single conference game. That was extremely tough mentally,” Tigers senior guard Dani Edwards said. “Physically it was draining. I didn’t want to go to practice. I tried to keep a positive mindset going into the games, but that was difficult.
“Just the whole losing part, I wasn’t used to that and that took a toll on me mentally.”
Edwards, who is Clemson’s third leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, admits that at times she doubted her decision to come to Clemson. She wondered if it was worth it to keep playing college basketball, to keep putting in the work.
Nearly a year after the Tigers ended their season on an 11-game losing streak to finish ACC play 1-15, Clemson is squarely in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid under first-year head coach Amanda Butler.
Clemson has experienced an improbable turnaround under Butler and is currently 17-10 (8-6) and projected as an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme.
With two ACC games remaining, the Tigers have already won more conference games this season than the previous four years combined.
“Just a remarkable job,” said national basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli. “I think it sort of validates Amanda’s thoughts and perceptions and views about the game and how to galvanize young women to get them on the same page. She’s always done that very well, and she’s proven to herself with a new group of players that what she teaches, how she teaches it are ways that can be successful.”
THE FIRST STEP
When Butler took over at Clemson in April 2018, she was well aware of the challenge that she faced to try to build an ACC contender. She also believed that there were players on the roster capable of winning at a high level.
The first thing Butler did at Clemson was study her roster inside and out and get to know players’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as their personalities.
“I had to know who they were. I had to figure that out. ... That’s kind of hard to uncover quickly,” Butler said. “My agenda at the beginning was just to know them because I think that’s how I can best succeed as a coach — knowing the who factor of somebody. So that’s really what I tried to do is just spend time with them.”
Sometimes Butler would sit down with a player and review tape from previous years, highlighting areas that were strengths and other areas where a player needed to improve.
Other times she would invite her players out for pizza with her family or to take part in an activity that had nothing to do with basketball.
“Just try to make who I was as accessible as I could to them in hopes that that would make it easier for them to share who they were with me,” Butler explained.
Butler coached at Florida from 2007-17, leading the Gators to the postseason in eight of her 10 seasons, including four NCAA Tournament berths.
After Audra Smith was fired and before a new head coach was named, Clemson’s players spoke as a team about the importance of sticking together and giving it their all, no matter who the new coach was.
There was an immediate buy-in when Butler was hired, and Clemson’s players were receptive to the feedback they were given.
“When we had individual workouts, she came and was straightforward to you — ‘Look, we know this is what you do well. How can we build on that? … This is what you do not so well. And let’s improve on that,’ “ Edwards said. “She just really took an interest in us individually and knew how to make us come together as one collectively to make us a great team.”
Clemson opened the season 2-3, but the three losses were to three SEC teams, including a 12-point defeat at No. 10 South Carolina.
Even with the results not immediately showing up in the win-loss column, Butler was encouraged.
“I think very early on we realized that the strengths that we have in the room are going to give us a chance to compete. We had enough of a few things that could make us competitive,” Butler said. “Let’s make sure that everybody who runs up against us or we run up against them, that they know who they’re playing against. That we really battle and compete in a way that’s memorable, not only for us but also our opponents.”
That motto led to victories. Clemson focused on what it could control, playing hard, physical defense and making all of the hustle plays.
The Tigers won five consecutive games after the 2-3 start and finished nonconference play at 9-4. Still, even Edwards had reservations about whether or not the success could carry over into ACC play.
“I really try not to bank on the nonconference because in other previous years I had some success nonconference,” she said. “But the ACC is one of the hardest leagues to play in.”
Unlike previous years in which Clemson had some success in nonconference before struggling in the ACC, this season the Tigers continued add wins.
After a loss to No. 14 Syracuse to open league play, the Tigers reeled off five consecutive wins, including victories at Miami and at No. 22 Florida State.
Clemson did suffer a three-game losing streak at the end of January and into February, but the three losses were to top 10 teams N.C. State, Notre Dame and Louisville.
The Tigers responded to the rough stretch by winning three of their next four games to remain in position to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001-02.
“That stretch when we beat Miami and Florida State back-to-back on the road at both of their places, those wins really hit me like, ‘OK, we can play with the best of them in this conference,’ ” Edwards said. “I was experiencing feelings that I had never experienced before, I was like, ‘We’ve got this. We bring a style of play that teams are not used to playing.’ Teams can’t really prepare for that.”
Every Division I college basketball team’s goal is to make the NCAA Tournament, but the thought of the Clemson women’s basketball team ending its more than 15-year drought anytime soon seemed far-fetched entering this season.
Yet with only a few regular season games remaining, the Tigers are in strong position for postseason play with mostly the same players that finished 1-15 in ACC play a year ago.
Clemson’s leading scorer is Kobi Thornton, a 6-2 junior post player who started 27 games a year ago.
In fact, six of the seven players who have started a game this season played on last year’s team. The only new addition to that group is guard Simone Westbrook, a graduate transfer from Florida.
“For the group of returners, not including Mo in that group, that have never had the opportunity to think about the NCAA Tournament or the postseason, it’s just so fun,” Butler said. “The term March Madness and all the energy and excitement that goes around that, it’s really fun to feel like you’re a part of that. For us to be in those conversations and for us to be able to say, ‘Yeah, we’re one of those teams,’ that’s really, really important, and I think for them fulfilling.”
For Edwards, who spent so many hours in the gym practicing and wondering if all of her hard work would ever translate into wins, seeing Clemson’s name pop up on the screen during the NCAA Tournament selection show would make all of the struggles and low points worth it.
“When you’re losing so much and you’re not necessarily happy, you doubt your decision of the school that you chose to go to. There’s plenty of times where I thought to myself, ‘Did I make the right decision? Should I stay here? Should I go?’ ” Edwards said. “It’s been a goal of mine (to make the NCAA Tournament). All four years that’s what I’ve wanted and it would mean everything to me if we finally got to be a part of that selection show and our name was announced.
“A tear might come. It’s something that I’ve only dreamt of and I’m excited for it.”