SSU reflects on ‘99 National Championship

To be “special,” a team must have talent, heart, and a wherewithal about it that will lead said team to succeed when the chips are all laid out on the table.

Throughout the course of the 1999 season, the girls on the NAIA Division II National Championship-winning women’s basketball unit at Shawnee State University did just that.

Want a team that can score? Check the box — Shawnee State scored 80 or more points 22 times during the 1998-99 season.

Want a team that can defend? Check the box — Shawnee State allowed less than 60 points 19 times during its 33-game stretch.

Want a team that can win close games? Check the box — Shawnee State went 6-2 in games decided by 10 points or less, including winning both of its contests in NAIA Division II Tournament competition that were decided by less than five points in victories over Northwestern (Ia.), 91-89, and a Division II NAIA National Semifinal-winning effort over South Dakota Tech (63-59).

And want a team that doesn’t rely on just one scorer? Shawnee State had that, too.

NAIA All-American Erica Hayes averaged 24.7 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per contest, was a defensive pest as evidenced by her 2.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, and shot .677 from the field en route to posting NAIA All-American numbers, but she wasn’t the only player who could play, as evidenced by the nine players who posted at least four points per contest and the six who averaged at least 5.8 points or better a night.

It all adds up to a national championship-winning team whose efforts haven’t been forgotten in the slightest.

“Playing on the 1998-99 team was fun,” Kelli Smith, a 5-7 junior guard on the ‘98-99 team and a resident from nearby Chesapeake, said. “It was the most unselfish team I’ve ever been a part of. We genuinely cared for one another and it showed on and off the court. It was a truly special team.”

“Our team was truly special, and the friendships I still share with the girls on the team mean the world to me,” Hayes, now Erica Hayes-Zinn, said. “We have been through a lot together over the past 20-plus years. I am so thankful that the game of basketball brought us all together. Being able to say that I was part of the 1999 National Championship team at Shawnee State University, and to see our banners hanging in the gym, is still something that makes me extremely proud.”

Brandi Baker-Damron, who averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game on 56 percent shooting as part of the ‘98-99 unit, concurred with her former teammates.

“Our team was blessed with selfless players,” Baker-Damron said. “I truly think that it was a combination of having players willing to sacrifice for the good of the team as well as great coaching. The combination is what allowed us to win a national championship.”

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