Following a 53-44 road loss last Saturday against UNC Pembroke, Flowery Branch grad Julianne Sutton and the rest of the University of North Georgia women’s basketball players found themselves at a crossroads.
The Nighthawks were ranked No. 10 in Division II women’s basketball going into the game, while Pembroke was 2-7 and coming off a four-game losing streak. So when UNG posted its worst offensive showing of the season — failing to top 60 points for the first time all season — the team was understandably concerned.
“We had talked after the loss that this was a turning point for our team,” Sutton said. “We could go in two directions. The loss could either fire us up or it could ruin our season. ... We definitely felt like we had something to prove.”
It turned out to be just the boost the Nighthawks needed.
With ESPN crews in attendance Wednesday night to broadcast North Georgia’s contest against Columbus State to a national audience on ESPN3, the team nearly doubled its scoring output from Saturday, taking down the visiting Cougars 82-70.
Sutton led the way for the Nighthawks, pacing the team in scoring and rebounding with a 21-point, 13-board double-double while also notching six blocks in the win.
“We were just really excited to get back out and prove that we can play and we can go out there and do the job,” she said. “It was just a really fun time. The fact that ESPN just happened to be there was really cool.”
Sutton’s performance Wednesday night was a continuation of her stellar start to her sophomore year with the team. Through 11 games, she is second on the team in scoring at 13.8 points a game and leads the Nighthawks in rebounds and blocks.
Sutton said the improvement from years one to two can be attributed to a couple of factors. For one, she’s on the court more often. North Georgia lost two post players to graduation after last season, forcing Sutton into a featured role.
The support of her teammates has also played a major part.
“We’re all really good friends and really close,” she said. “My teammates are just there holding me accountable, and they push me to go out there and give it my all.”
All that came to a head Wednesday night, when Sutton put in her career high in rebounding and tied her second-highest scoring output since joining the Nighthawks. That the performance came in front of an ESPN camera crew when the lights were shining the brightest was simply a coincidence, according to Sutton.
Rather, Sutton was urged on by the advice of assistant coach Jaymee Acton — a graduate of Gainesville High. After a lackluster showing from Sutton against Pembroke, Acton came to the sophomore forward with words of encouragement, assuring Sutton that getting down on herself after one off game would not make matters any better.
It’s a message Sutton and the rest of the team have taken to heart.
As conference play begins to heat up, the Nighthawks have decided to turn their worst defeat of the season into a source of motivation.
“We just decided as a team that we wanted it to fire us up and push us forward to fight hard,” Sutton said. “We want to prove to everyone that we are just as good if not better from last year.”