Crippled by a decade of losses without a single trip to the playoffs, the Rams have stumbled to an 0-3 start in the Southeastern Conference despite running off a school-record seven straight wins to begin the season.
“The largest hurdle facing Purnell girls basketball program is ourselves,” Locklear said Monday. “Over 90 percent of this game is mental and since Purnell has been down for so long, it’s difficult to change that negative mindset.”
Heading into the 2011 Robeson County Shootout, Swett was the area’s top team at 7-0, led by two fierce senior competitors, Laura Bird and Kayla Lewis. The subsequent first-round tournament upset at St. Pauls was when things began to unravel.
“We were ahead most of the games we played early and didn’t face much adversity … we were calm,” Locklear said. “Recently, we’ve started to panic when things get close and we don’t take the high-percentage shots we’re used to. We’re panicking a little and playing with less confidence.”
The Rams struggled with execution and defense in that game against the Bulldogs — two staples during their hot start — and that has continued since. Swett has dropped four of its last five games and is on the verge of missing the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. Since 2006, the Rams have won just four conference games, but Locklear thinks, with seven league contests remaining, her team has the ability to finish in the top half of the standings.
A spot in the SEC’s final four secures a postseason berth.
“We have the potential to do anything we want, it’s just a matter of showing up on game night in this conference,” Locklear said. “We played great on offense and defense against Richmond and then we didn’t show up until the final two minutes against Pinecrest. I’m trying to change the mindset and help these young women get over the hurdle and realize everything they want is up for grabs.”
Lewis, Swett’s leader in total points and assists, says the key to finishing the season on a high note is playing each quarter with heart and determination.
“Sometimes, we only play with intensity in the fourth quarter and we got to change that,” Lewis said. “We have to try harder every minute of every game.”
Changing the culture has been Locklear’s focus since taking over as head coach in 2010. She served as an assistant on Angela Faulkner’s staff in Pembroke previously and grew close to the current seniors. The former South Atlantic Conference player of the year at Catawba who started on the Rams’ last playoff team in the late 1990s says it’s tough to rid a program of lop-sided losses and the stigma of being non-competitive.
“In their minds, we aren’t supposed to compete with certain teams,” Locklear said. “They’ve tasted success enough this season to realize it’s possible. I’ve heard it verbally in the locker room. I want the girls to look back on this season and not have any regrets. I want them to remember the impact they’ve made on this program.”
Locklear is the leading reason for the Rams’ two-year turnaround according to Lewis.
“She believes we can win every game we play. Not all coaches are like that,” Lewis said. “We might not always do everything the way she wants it done, but she lets us know about our mistakes and how to correct them.”
Locklear says she plans on being at Swett for the long haul or “whenever God says different.” She commends her varsity and junior varsity staffs and says the coaches at Pembroke, Prospect and Townsend Middle are preparing future Rams with her system and similar fundamentals.
“I think our program has made tremendous advances as far as where we were last year, but as a coach, I’m not content with where we are,” Locklear said. “I don’t think any coach is ever content.”
The Rams will try and seize their first SEC victory Friday against Hoke (2-11, 0-3).
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford can be reached at 910-272-6119 or firstname.lastname@example.org