North Georgia vs. Columbus State
What: Southeast Region tournament
When: Friday, 8:45 p.m.
Where: Hickory, N.C.
Next: Winner faces Lenoir-Rhyne/Armstrong Atlantic on Saturday
Jaymee Carnes would love to be on the court this weekend with her teammates, living out the senior season she had imagined for herself.
Instead, the former Gainesville High standout will be in coaching attire as the North Georgia women’s basketball team opens up the NCAA Division II Southeast Region Tournament against Columbus State tonight in Hickory, N.C.
“It’s been tough to watch, but it’s been rewarding in a sense,” Carnes said. “It is nice to go along the journey with the team….I still feel a part of it. It’s not the same, but it is still really exciting.”
After a dominating start to the season, Carnes suffered a torn ACL in a Jan. 4 game against Georgia College. It was an injury that ended her prolific playing career at North Georgia, which included her being named the National Player of the Year in 2012.
Now Carnes is helping her team in any way possible, including coaching on the sideline. It’s a role she has accepted, looking at it as a way to get an early start on her future coaching career.
“I don’t think she wanted to do that right off the bat, but she kind of got thrown into the fire with that,” North Georgia coach Buffie Burson said in a teleconference Tuesday. “We’ve still used her in so many positive ways with the team. She has been such a big part down the stretch for us.”
Like she has been for the past 18 games since her injury — North Georgia has gone 13-5 without her on the floor — Carnes will once again be on the sideline in coaching attire when the Lady Nighthawks (22-6) open the region tournament Friday night at 8:45 p.m.
Friday's game is the culmination of what has been a historic season for the Lady Nighthawks, who earned an at-large bid to the 64-team tournament field last Sunday night.
It was North Georgia’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth since the school moved up from the NAIA ranks in 2006, which also happens to be the last time a North Georgia women’s basketball team finished a season with more than 20 wins.
The at-large bid came despite North Georgia losing to Georgia College in the Peach Belt Conference tournament last weekend. A regular season of quality wins over good opponents outweighed a poor outing in the tournament semifinals.
“We are super excited,” Burson said. “We had a little gathering at the softball complex and had the team together. It is exciting making history.”
Now in the win-or-go home region tournament, the Lady Nighthawks know they can’t afford to have a poor outing like they did in the conference tournament.
“I think it starts with approaching practices differently,” said Gainesville native Mimi Hill, who leads North Georgia with 24 points per game and is the daughter of Gainesville Lady Red Elephants coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore.
“Just coming in and working hard against each other, trying to make each other better.”
Familiar opponents in this weekend’s region tournament surround North Georgia. Friday’s game against Columbus State marks the third time the two squads have met. North Georgia won the two previous meetings, but only by a combined eight points.
“Both games against (Columbus State) came down to the wire,” Burson said. “They could have gone either way. We were fortunate to win both. Both of us know each other very well. I have a ton of respect for Columbus State.”
If the Lady Nighthawks can get past Columbus State, they’ll likely face region host Lenoir-Rhyne in the region semifinals on Saturday afternoon.
A potential clash against conference foe Clayton State, which won the 2011 national championship, could be looming in Monday’s region championship game that awards the winner a trip to the Division II Elite 8 in Erie, Pa.
Once in Erie, the Lady Nighthawks would be just three wins away from the school’s first-ever NCAA national championship.
“I think when we get to this point of the season — it’s called March Madness for a reason — anybody can win,” Burson said. “There are four teams from the Peach Belt and we’ve played all of them. We’ve beaten all of them. So we know anything can happen.”
A major part of North Georgia’s success in the region tournament this weekend lies on the hands of Hill, who stepped up to become the go-to threat when Carnes went down with her knee injury. She was named to the All-Region team on Thursday.
For Hill, though, the pressure doesn’t solely rest on her hands, as the team has bonded together to pick up the missing production of Carnes. She was averaging 20.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game before her injury.
“I think as soon as Jaymee went down, it got to that point where it was kind of like, ‘Oh no,’” Hill said. “But we all realized that we have to pick up that load that we’re not going to get from Jaymee anymore.”