Interviews by Natalie Heavren, Staff Writer
Assistant Coach Tajama Abraham Ngongba (Coach T)
Fourth Estate (IVE): What has this season’s success meant to you, and to the program?
Coach T: Personally it has been amazing, and I am so impressed with our players and what they were able to accomplish this season. I just feel like coming in here five years ago and working with Coach Milleson to build this program from almost a ground zero state, and to get it to a place where it’s something the community, fans, players, coaches can be very proud of is just amazing.
I think to our team, we set some goals before the season, and one of the two goals was being the best teammates in history that the program has ever seen. And then [the other was] being the best team that this program has ever been, in the history of the program. And we did those two things this year, so that’s what makes it so special. So I know that they’re super excited because when you reach for something so big, and you’re able to accomplish a lot of it, and you set those goals, and you hit a lot of goals that you set in terms of trying to make history with a program at a university it’s extremely impressive and our girls were able to do that.
IVE: Is there one moment this season that stands out as your favorite?
CT: Well, off the court after our last home game against Stephen F. Austin, Natalie runs over and literally picks Coach up, for like… it seemed like forever. I thought that was such an amazing moment to see that, to see a player and their head coach just connect. And it was in front of all the fans, and that was just, it just sums up what we did, and how we were with our players, all in that one moment. Just the excitement, but I thought that was pretty cool.
On the court, just there’s so many moments but something that definitely stands out to me is just the girls and how well they came together in certain games, there wasn’t just one game, but just in general how well they would unify on the court, particularly when adversity was setting in, and really come together to push forward to get a win. I thought that was just, for me, always something amazing to see within the girls on the team.
IVE: I was watching the game at home with my parents when Natalie ran over to coach and picked her up…
CT: Oh so you saw it?
IVE: I loved that moment. Especially the look on Coach’s face when she realized how far in the air she was.
CT: Yes, she was no longer on the ground. There’s a picture of it as well, and she looks like she’s two feet off the ground, it’s hilarious because I didn’t even realize she got her that far up initially. And how she kicked her legs up like “oh wow, what’s going on”, but that’s definitely one of my favorites.
And just really seeing how down the stretch how amazing our seniors, Tayler Dodson and Natalie Butler, how they would just really lock in. And I know a lot of what Tayler Dodson doesn’t show up in the stats, but when those two really put their minds to it, to lift us up, and put the team on their back, we become a different team.And that was always great to see.
IVE: What was it like learning that you made it into the WNIT?
CT: It was very exciting, it was something that we were hoping for, and as we sat in Eagle Bank Arena waiting to find out what the verdict was going to be. And once we got it watching the girls cheer and just in excitement, it was a great moment, just to see. It’s kind of like everything we’ve done on the track, everything we’ve done in the weight room, everything we’ve done through practices, it’s all for this moment, can we continue in the postseason. And we did. It was like finally, we see that all of this is worth it. And it’s like girls, you’ve earned this. You deserve it. And it was so great to see them so excited about it.
IVE: What was your mindset going into the tournament?
CT: Taking it one game at a time, making sure we’re as prepared as possible. For me it went right back to the work side of it, make sure we’re rested when need to be rested, make sure we’re eating the right things, fueling our bodies properly, for me it went right into the tactical stuff, the planning of it all. I know, talking to a couple of the freshman they were pretty excited about it, just “We’re here! We’re here! We did it, we’re going to be playing!” and I’m like “yeah that’s great but we gotta make sure we have the right strategy, we have to go scout our opponent”. And I don’t think the coaches really slept that night after we got who we were playing. It was Coach Dunn scouting but we were all up watching the opponent just to see what we can add to the table and make sure everybody was prepared going into the game.
IVE: How will this season impact how you think about upcoming seasons?
CT: I think it’s one of those things where you know when you set the bar? I think this was a bar setting season, and I think every other season will be measured by it. And so, it’s just important to know that moving forward that we, our girls know that hey this is the bar, what people are going to want, crave, and we’ve got to find a way to figure out how to maintain it. That’s definitely the big piece.
IVE: What do you think this season meant to the team as a whole?
CT: It’s going to be one of those seasons, historical seasons, and so from that standpoint, it meant everything to our players. It means the world to them, to be able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished this year and to have had such a great Mason community rally around us. And you see the numbers every game grow in the stands. Coach Milleson and I were joking around about how when we first got here there was literally like the Green Machine and then maybe 40 fans. So to remember those moments of games in our first years, looking up in the stands, and seeing probably a thousand fans. It’s just a special season, and I think our girls felt that.
IVE: Coach T and I talked about how one of her favorite off the court moments was you picking Coach Milleson up after the end of the Stephen F. Austin game.
Natalie Butler: That was definitely pretty cool. The risk was, not getting to the next game, so the fact that I was able to do it [break the NCAA single-season rebounding record] in that game, was pretty special. I’m not sure how many people knew about it so I’m just happy and fortunate that it happened.
IVE: What was your favorite part of this season?
NB: My favorite part of this season… I had a lot of fun going over to Coach’s house [Coach Milleson]. The bonding moments we had were always really fun. They always had games, and families were invited, so it was like a huge family get together. For me, that was really special because I felt like I was part of the family, even right from the very beginning. I think that was probably the most memorable moment I had, cause you know it’s the off the court stuff that really translates to success on the court.
IVE: What was it like learning that the team made it into the WNIT? I know you guys were together as a team when you found out
NB: Yeah that was crazy. Some people I guess found out early on Twitter, cause it was posted. For me individually I had no idea, and I was just super, super excited because people were saying that there was a strong chance that it might not happen. So I was under the mindset ‘okay this might be the end of the season’ and so the fact we were able to play two more games was a blessing.
IVE: How do you think you’ve helped this program as it moves forward?
NB: I hope that I helped any way that I could. I think that the team we had was very special and there’s a lot of individuals that did really well this year. It’s tough coming in as a senior trying to finish out your last year with an established program, so I’m just very happy that they accepted me. And hopefully I was able to provide some type of leadership throughout the year as a senior, an upperclassman, a captain, and hopefully that will continue in the future, and I think it will. They’ve got a very talented freshman class, so the future is looking bright for the program.
IVE: How do you think your performance this season will impact you going forward?
NB: I think it’s a good momentum builder, I mean the fact that I was able to come back and do something my senior year and to be proud of it, is a huge bonus. And hopefully, I can build from that going into playing at the next level, whether that’s overseas or possibly in the WNBA.
IVE: What is one thing that you’ll miss about this season?
NB: Probably my teammates and coaches. I mean I’ve developed relationships with every single one of those guys. And it’s tough to only get to know them for a year and by the time you get to feel like you’re really starting to develop a close relationship, you turn around and you have to leave you know it’s definitely tough, I’m definitely going to miss them. And I’m going to miss Coach Milleson, Coach T, Coach Dunn, Coach Bailey, they all really were really supportive of me and my growth, so to have coaches like that I mean, you don’t come by coaches like that that often. I think it was definitely, just the camaraderie of the team, just the coaching staff, in general, they’re just, you know, my extended family, so it’s tough to say bye.
IVE: What did this season mean to you?
NB: For me, it was important because I really needed to get back to playing, you know, I think that was really huge. I mean you look out throughout the year and I think I continued to develop through the year which is really important, and actually was able to finish the season strong, which it doesn’t always happen like that. I’m just so grateful to Coach Milleson for giving me the opportunity to play, and then Coach Ngongba for working with me. I mean we were literally in the gym all the time throughout the season, working on getting better, working on splitting the double teams. I mean if you think about it, to be double and triple teamed every night, and to be able to say that you got stronger at the end of the year, not many people can say that. I’m very grateful that I had such a determined coaching staff, that wanted to see me succeed, and you know I think it definitely really helps with my development and going forward. And just, like I said earlier it’s just important to continue to build off of this year for whatever’s next.
IVE: What does the success you’ve had this season mean to you, as you’ve been here for the four years?
Tayler Dodson: I think this success just means to me that our program is headed in the right direction, from being here for four years, but part of the success has been seeing the growth of the program in general, and just creating that excitement.
IVE: What was the most memorable part of this season for you?
TD: I think the most memorable part was the postseason, the WNIT, getting the bid and then getting the home game. And just getting to share the win with all of our fans on our home court was pretty exciting.
IVE: What was it like learning that you made it into the WNIT?
TD: I thought it was cool. We all went and had a team dinner together and got together to watch the bid, not watch the bid, but we were all just waiting to see if we made it and then they put it up and we got to celebrate as a team, and then call President Cabrera and Brad Edwards [Director of Athletics] to kind of celebrate with them. And I think that just was super fun because we’re a pretty close team anyway, and then to just be able to share that as a family was cool too.
IVE: What lasting impact do you think you’ve left on this program?
TD: I hope that I left an impact on not giving up and just continuing to trust the process and put in that work and that eventually, it will pay off, and that hopefully, it continues to pay off. So I’d hope that I left a work ethic behind that people will choose to continue.
IVE: What is one thing you will miss most from this season?
TD: I think, I’ll miss the most just how close, I’ve mentioned it so many times, but just our team is truly a very, very close team, chemistry wise. It’s not something that you get with teams all the time. And I think that’s just something that’ll be missed, moving on, is that I won’t have that same connection.
IVE: What is the one thing you will miss most about playing basketball?
TD: The competitiveness. I’ll definitely miss that need to win or the want to win. I’ll probably be trying to find that somewhere else, I’m already looking for my next adventure.