By Parrish Alford
Jamie Bender is glad to be playing close to home, you just won't see her on the floor at tipoff.
Megan Teel? Well, that's another story. The area is her home.
Two successful Northeast Mississippi high school players will be on the floor at the BancorpSouth Center today for the opening round of the Gulf South Conference Tournament.
Bender played at Baldwyn High and then Itawamba Community College. She's a senior forward at West Alabama now, recruited there two years ago by a UWA men's assistant, Chris Coker, who was her softball coach at Baldwyn.
Teel, a junior point guard at Delta State, is from Holly Springs and played at Marshall Academy.
Both were Daily Journal all-area players; Teel was player of the year.
"It's not just playing close to Holly Springs but playing in the area ... there were so many fans from all over the area that contributed to our success in high school," Teel said.
Teel has gone from one successful program to another. Delta State's history was a big factor when it was time to choose a college.
Today, the Lady Statesmen, ranked fourth in the country, play the 8 p.m. game against Valdosta State. With Teel at the wheel, DSU has won 27 of 29 games.
"She's a good leader," Delta State forward Catrina King said. "She's quick on offense and sees a lot of openings, and she's there for help on defense."
Teel wasn't an instant impact going from Holly Springs to Cleveland. There were transitions on and off the court.
"I've improved a lot from my freshman year to my junior year," she said. "High school to college was a big, big change. At a private school you do not get to play with all the racial groups. Going to Delta State let me see exactly what kind of competition was out there."
And she's been up to the challenge, scoring 7.9 points a game and shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range this season. She averages four assists and 2.1 steals.
She's given a lot to the Lady Statesmen this season, but the relationship has been mutually beneficial.
"Coming from Marshall Academy, with only about 500 students, I was looking for a smaller school where I could get to know everybody on campus, plus a program that had had a lot of success," Teel said. "I wanted to go somewhere not only to get some playing time but to win championships.
"I considered a few other schools but was never serious about anyone but Delta State."
Bender's story is different. Community as well as campus was very important during the recruiting process. The small town of Livingston, Ala., about 30 miles west of Tuscaloosa, had a familiar feel to it.
"It was kind of like the same community I had been in all my life ... not very big, kind of small," she said.
But Bender has been big for the Lady Tigers.
West Alabama punched its ticket for Tupelo late, winning four of five down the stretch. The Lady Tigers will play Arkansas Tech tonight at 6.
Bender leads the team in scoring (14.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 ppg) and hasn't started a game this year.
She approached first-year head coach Becky Crowe and asked not to be in the starting lineup as she was last year after transferring from ICC.
"When I first got here, the competition was kind of extreme," Bender said. "I would get kind of nervous. I'd rather sit a little bit, and watch my player, the girl I'll defend, to see what she is going to do."
That suits Crowe just fine.
"Jamie is capable of starting, but she's more comfortable coming off the bench," Crowe said. "It gets her relaxed and ready to play."
She may not be on the floor at the beginning, but she's there at the end. Bender's layup with 2.1 seconds remaining lifted the Lady Tigers to a 62-61 road win over Mississippi University for Women Feb. 19 to secure a spot in the GSC field.
"We feel like we can compete with anyone," Bender said. "Arkansas Tech is a good matchup for us. They're a good team, but we'll have a little bit of a height advantage, and our guards are a little bit quicker."