Bailey: Owls and the ‘crazies’ started to believe

2016 West Point High graduate Qiayon Bailey dribbles during the national championship game.
Staff Writer

Last year when she graduated from Meridian Community College, 2016 West Point High graduate Qiayon Bailey wanted to continue her education at a good school. Basketball was second on her list.

Fortunately for her, Mississippi University for Women was just 25 miles away, has an outstanding kinesiology and physical therapy program and just so happened to be bringing back basketball.

Little did the West Point native know that a year after enrolling, she’d be a member of a national championship team and laying the foundation for the university’s move to NCAA Division III athletics.

And least of all did Bailey think she would be the national championship’s MVP.

Sunday night, that all began to sink in as she and her teammates, 24 hours after winning the United State Collegiate Athletic Association Women's Basketball Division I Championship in Uniontown, Pa., got off a bus to cheers from adoring friends, family, supporters and fellow students on the MUW campus.

By noon Monday, her voice was still raspy from all the yelling.

“Yes, I’m just hoarse. Been a lot of cheering,” said Bailey, who is majoring in physical therapy at The W.

The 21-6 Owls, who entered the eight-team tournament as the second seed, ran away in the second half to a 69-46 win Saturday over the top seed University of Maine-Ft. Kent. But last year when the dream ride started, it wasn’t what Bailey envisioned.

“MUW was really close to home and I wanted a place that had good programs,” she said, looking back. “Basketball was second.”

Even when she decided to play, a national championship wasn’t on the radar. Not until Coach Howard White put it there.

“Coach told us we were going to win a national championship, that was the goal, that was what we worked for,” Bailey remembered.

“I joined the crazies.”

By the middle of the season, the team was starting to believe. By then, the Owls were ranked atop the USCAA poll.

“About the middle of the year, we just all started to click as a team, started to believe,” she described.

Still getting to Pennsylvania was one thing, winning was another, especially since they knew little about any of the other teams. A big win Thursday over the number 7 seed gave them confidence and a chance to see the other colleges play.

The semifinals Friday against Paul Quinn College out of Texas was the test, especially for Bailey who went to the bench with three quick first-quarter fouls sending her to the bench until the second half.

Two other teammates also got in early foul trouble.

They could have folded. Instead, the team kept its composure, relied on its depth, nd got solid play up and down the line up in the second half.

“I just knew I had to take care of our business, do what I am supposed to do. We all knew that,” said Bailey, who ended up with 13 points.

Saturday the Lady Owls started slowly, nervous and unsure of the Lady Bengals, were noted for their press and outside shooting. The Owls trailed 10-6 after an ugly opening period.

Then Bailey took over. After two first quarter points, she powered her way to 28 for the game, along with seven rebounds.

“We just settled down and executed plays. They were too little, shorter and not as big,” she said of being able to dominate.

Interestingly, while Ft. Kent is on the northern tip of Maine on the St. John River along the U.S. and Canada border, six of its players are from California, one each from Florida and Texas, and two from Maine.

This year’s champion team has only one senior. Bailey, a 6-0 junior forward, is looking forward to a repeat.

“If everyone comes back, I think we can do it again, be even better. We just have to believe in ourselves,” she said Monday.

Even more importantly, MUW is transitioning to NCAA Division III as it returns to athletics, which were shut down in 2003 after a tornado ravaged the campus.

While some other sports returned during the 2017-18 school year, this was the first year for basketball, which has a legacy of its own, winning a national title in 1971.

Saturday’s championship will help recruiting and put the historic university, the first public university for women in the country, on the sports map as it looks to earn the DIII status in 2020.

“It is special being part of something like that, of laying the groundwork for the future,” Bailey said.

When she got off the bus Sunday night, she was clutching a stuffed bulldog, “Bully,” her good luck charm. Monday, he and her MVP award were perched right next to each other in her room.

He’s not going anywhere, she said of her companion. And while this is spring break, Bailey isn’t running off anywhere. She admits to still being tired after an exciting run to the title.

“I’m going to rest and do my work. It didn’t go away,” she said, her voice rasping out a lag.