Freshman guard earns starting role

Freshman guard Kierra Groce prepares to play defense against rival Alabama-Huntsville Jan. 16. Groce earned her first career start against Christian Brothers Jan. 9 and has started every game since.

When the harsh reality of a losing season sets in, coaches have opportunities to experiment with different players and rotations.

As freshmen and sophomores occupy the UNA women’s basketball team roster, freshman newcomer Kierra Groce worked her way into the starting rotation midway through the season. Groce made her first start against Christian Brothers Jan. 9.

“Before Christmas break, I was getting no playing time,” Groce said. “Coach (Missy Tiber) determines who plays by how we do in practice. She came in and told us she was changing everything. I went hard every single day because I wanted that opportunity. It was a big surprise (when she told me I would start).”

Since her first start, Groce averages almost 29 minutes per game in five starts. She racked up more minutes in her last five games combined than her total in the previous 13 games. Before her first start, Groce averaged eight minutes off the bench.

UNA assistant coach Adrianne Harlow said Groce’s first breakout game came against Arkansas Tech, where Groce scored nine points as a backup and gave the Lions a weapon on defense.

“Kierra got in that game because we had some injuries to our main players and were in major foul trouble,” Harlow said. “We just stuck her in there, and I don’t think anyone expected her to do what she did. That’s kind of what we hoped to see from her, and she’s growing from that.”

Harlow said Groce fit the Lions’ defensive philosophy.

“We were doing a more up-tempo pressure defense, and that’s what we recruited her to do,” Harlow said. “We recruited her when we saw she was a ball hawk and hounded the person with the ball.”

Groce’s athletic ability goes beyond basketball, as she was a three-sport athlete at Munford High School. She lettered in basketball, softball and volleyball for the school.

“I not only had offers in basketball, but also in softball and one in volleyball,” Groce said. “I came to the conclusion I wanted to play basketball for my next four years. UNA reached out to me and said they were interested in me, and I was excited.”

Groce said she had offers from West Alabama and West Georgia to play basketball, but UNA stood out to her the most.

“The community and the people here are so welcoming,” she said. “When I found out about the Lions, I couldn’t believe we had real-live mascots on campus. I knew when I came here I would become comfortable with the surroundings.”

Freshman guard Elise Holden said she enjoys spending a lot of time with Groce, whether it is on the court or outside of basketball.

“We hang out in our dorm rooms together, go shopping and go get dinner together,” Holden said. “I feel like we were friends right away. Even if we didn’t play basketball together, I think we would still be good friends.”

As she attempts to balance academics with athletics, Groce said she switched her major from sports medicine to sports management this semester. Despite her declared major, she said her true passion is helping special needs students.

“I have a huge heart for special education students,” she said. “During my senior year, I worked with some. That’s something I would want to do. I have a few more years to figure out what I want to do, but my heart is in special education.”

After snapping an eight-game losing streak against Valdosta State, Groce and the Lions go on the road Jan. 28 to take on West Alabama. A win against the Tigers would give UNA its only series sweep in conference play.