West Forsyth graduate Cayla Cowart probably wishes her Tennessee Tech women's basketball team was facing anybody else besides Indiana in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Division-I Women's Basketball Tournament.
And that's not just because the Hoosiers are among the No. 1 seeds in March Madness.
When Cowart was in middle school, her travel ball team played at a tournament in Bloomington, Indiana. While in town, Cowart and some teammates tried on a pair of the Hoosiers' iconic red-and-white striped warmup pants at a store.
Much to Cowart's chagrin, photographic evidence exists, and it's made her the butt of several jokes from her teammates.
“My whole team got ahold of it, and they have not stopped giving me crap about it,” Cowart said of the photo. “It’s so surreal that I was like 12-13 in that picture, and now, that’s who we’re playing tomorrow in the NCAA tournament.”
Cowart, a freshman guard for the Golden Eagles, took the time to conduct a phone interview with the Forsyth County News almost exactly 24 hours before Tennessee Tech (23-9) was slated to tip off on ESPN2 against Indiana (27-3) in Assembly Hall.
The conversation also took place a little more than 12 hours after the Golden Eagles took down Monmouth by a 79-69 score in a First Four matchup between No. 16 seeds on the same court. In Tennessee Tech's first NCAA tournament appearance in 23 years, the Golden Eagles captured their fourth-ever March Madness win and first since beating Richmond in 1990.
“Our team has worked really hard,” Cowart said. “We lost five people last year, so we knew we all had to step up. We knew what we wanted. We have a saying, ‘Hold the rope.’ It means we’re a team and we all contribute in our own way.
“Last night, it felt like everyone knew their role and played it perfectly. It was so much fun.”
In her own words, this season has been "a humbling year" for Cowart.
After ending her Wolverines career as the second-leading scorer in program history (1,551 points) and all-time assists leader (364), the 5-foot-9 Cowart has averaged 1.9 points and 1.1 assists during her 8.2 minutes per game.
“I’ve just had to realize it’s not like you just walk in freshman year and you’re the same player,” Cowart said. “I’ve had to accept a different role this year. Every role is just as important as the next.
“For this year, it’s obviously been a different one than most people want, but it has taught me a lot for the upcoming years, when I will not necessarily be the big fish but one of them.”
Despite the adjustment period, Cowart shares a special connection to everyone associated with the Tennessee Tech program.
“Looking at it, everyone has worked so hard, and I don’t think any other team deserves to be in this position more than us,” Cowart said. “I’m just really proud of our team and our coaching staff. It’s really incredible. We’ve built a bond with each other that in like 10 years will be there still.”
While Cowart didn't log any minutes in the victory over Monmouth, the two-time FCN player of the year had seen the floor in Tennessee Tech's nine previous games, including all three in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
The No. 3 seed in that tourney — which took place in Evansville, Indiana — the Golden Eagles took down SIU-Edwardsville, Eastern Illinois and Little Rock on successive days. Their run culminated with a 54-46 win against the top-seeded Trojans.
“We felt like we were the best team in the conference, but we hadn’t had the opportunity to show it,” Cowart said. “Going into the tournament, we knew we had to prove ourselves. That’s exactly what we did. We had a lot of players show up, and we proved that we were the top team and wanted to go dancing.”
Having captured its 10th OVC tournament title March 4, Tennessee Tech — which is located in Cookeville — settled into a nearly two-week layoff before the Big Dance started.
It was a break Cowart said she appreciated.
“The first week, we definitely took it all in and had a lot of fun with it,” she said. “This past week has been strictly business.”
Harvard defeating Stanford in 1998 remains the only time a women's 16th seed has knocked off a No. 1 seed. But even though the Golden Eagles will be deemed massive underdogs against the Hoosiers, Cowart believes the team can draw inspiration from some of the recent bracket busters in the men's tournament.
“You’ve seen Princeton, Penn State and all of those teams on the men’s side [pull off upsets], so anything is possible,” she said. “We’re going into like we are underdogs, so we have nothing to lose. Go out there and play with your heart.
“We’re playing in front of a sold-out crowd, which is pretty incredible in itself, so I think everyone is really excited.”