The Seawolves won the hearts of fans even though they didn't win the Great Alaska Shootout this week, and maybe even better than that, they showed they are still here, they are still viable and they are still worth watching.
That's saying something, given how much firepower and brainpower vanished during a messy offseason exodus that included two all-conference players, two top reserves and the coach who masterminded the UAA women's basketball program's ascent to NCAA Division II prominence.
The ones who stayed know people might dismiss them as the remnants of a once-great program. But they have different ideas, as they showed in two games this week at Sullivan Arena, a 73-47 first-round win over North Dakota State and a 67-57 championship-game loss to Utah State.
"We wanna regroup after ... after everything that went on ... and prove to ourselves that we are winners," junior Kylie Burns said. "We want to prove that just because of those changes, it doesn't mean the program is gonna change."
The ones who stayed are fiercely proud to still be Seawolves -- and a bit defiant.
"The people who are here are people who want to be here," senior Sasha King said. "We don't want you if you don't want to be here."
The Seawolves are bonded by the fact they are survivors, that they remained when others fled. They talk about being a family, which is such a familiar refrain from any team at any level that King admits it's a cliche. But it's true, she said.
"We have 13 girls and nine that play," she said. "That's the smallest team I've ever been on. So yeah, we're close.
"There are no cliques. Back when we had 20 players, we had cliques. We are a family. We have unselfish players this year -- we want to win and we'll do whatever we can to win."
King's determination to do whatever it takes to win makes her a crowd favorite. She's a 5-foot-6 point guard who can bury the 3, strip the ball from opponents and run the court for 40 minutes. She's a risk-taker and a play-maker, and this season she's fearless in an important way.
Former coach Tim Moser and assistant coach Rebecca Alvidrez were no nonsense and all business as they molded UAA into a disciplined team known for unyielding defense. They demanded much from their players, and the players all knew two or three people were standing in line to take their places if they didn't perform up to expectations.
"With Coach A and Mose last year, we were playing every day scared," King said. "This year, we're not scared to mess up."
Burns said the Seawolves this season are "playing for the right reasons -- we're playing for our teammates," but when asked how that differs from last season, she responded indirectly. She praises new coach Ryan McCarthy for creating a nurturing environment.
"It's a different atmosphere," she said. "It's making basketball fun again. I had fun the past two years, but this is 10 times better."
McCarthy, a 30-year-old who came to UAA after serving as an assistant coach at conference rival Northwest Nazarene, said the Seawolves were a bit bruised after all the departures, but he said they have the perfect attitude. Instead of going all woe-is-me, they are determined to forge their own identity, and a winning one at that.
"I found a group with a chip on their shoulder, wanting to negate any expectations," he said. "They felt some pressure because of the previous success, but they also felt they were the ones that stayed behind and they feel a sense of loyalty to each other and the program.
"With an attitude like that, you can be overachievers like Hoosiers."
And so on Tuesday UAA romped to a 73-47 win over Division I North Dakota State, and then on Wednesday against Utah State they came back from an early 28-8 deficit to make it a three-possession game in the final minutes.
That's not what many expected from a UAA team that's been picked to finish fifth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. Lowered expectations like that helped put the chip on the Seawolves' shoulder, and are providing extra motivation in case pride doesn't carry them far enough.
"This season is going to be memorable," King said. "All those assumptions -- being ranked fifth, hearing teams say, 'oh they're gonna lose this year, I can't wait to play Anchorage this year' -- it's why we want to work hard."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.