Central grad Higgs finally gets to enjoy NCAA Tournament

She has been there for the dark times. She has endured the 2-12 seasons in the ACC and the 40-point losses to some of the nation's best teams.

So on Monday night, as Stephanie Higgs and her Georgia Tech teammates gathered in the locker room to watch the Women's NCAA Tournament Selection Show, she was understandably nervous.

Sure, her Yellow Jackets seemed like a lock - with 20 victories and a winning record in the toughest conference in America - but she was still just a bit skeptical as ESPN started revealing the brackets.

"Yeah, there's always a chance you might not make it," Higgs said.

Then, in one instant, all the dark times and all the losses from the last three years seemed to disappear.

Right there, on the TV screen, she saw what had been dreaming about for four years: No. 7 seed Georgia Tech would be playing No. 10 seed DePaul on Saturday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

After four years of missing out, Stephanie Higgs was finally going dancing.

"Oh, that was just the best feeling, just knowing that we had made it," said Higgs, who led the Central Gwinnett Black Knights to the Class AAAA state title as a junior. "Of course I wish I could've gone every year, but this being my senior year and my last opportunity to play here at Georgia Tech, it was very important ... it just means a lot."

Especially considering where the program has come from.

During Higgs' freshman season, the Yellow Jackets went just 14-15 overall and 5-11 in the ACC. They followed that up with records of 13-14, 4-10 in 2005 and 14-15, 2-12 last season.

Before this season, Higgs had won just 11 of the 44 ACC games she had played in.

"When you look back on the last three years, when you lose five or six games in a row, it's like the season goes by so slow," Higgs said. "And looking back at my sophomore and freshman year, I wasn't sure we would really ever make it to this point, to be honest with you."

Well, they've made it.

And Higgs is a huge reason why.

The senior point guard leads the Jackets in scoring, and is sixth in the conference, with 15.5 points per game. She also averages 4.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game for a Georgia Tech squad that is 20-11 overall.

This season, Higgs has even shown glimpses of that scoring machine she was in high school, putting up a career-high 36 at Northwestern in December and then following that up a few weeks later with a 26-point outburst against defending national champion Maryland in a 77-72 victory.

"I remember Coach (MaChelle Joseph) telling me, 'Enjoy the points,'" Higgs said with a laugh. "It was a really good feeling. I hadn't felt like that since high school, where it felt like every shot I took was going in."

Now she's hoping to get that feeling again this weekend.

The Jackets open their tournament against DePaul in a nationally televised game on ESPN. If they win on Saturday, Higgs and Co. will most likely play No. 2 seed Purdue in the second round.

Then, if the Jackets can pull the upset of the Boilermakers, they could quite possibly meet the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sweet 16.

But Higgs isn't going to get ahead of herself. After all, this is her first and only NCAA Tournament, so she might have a few nerves before tipoff on Saturday night.

"Oh yeah, of course I'm going to be nervous," she said. "But I'm not going to let it show."

Instead, she's going to try to soak it all up. She's going to make a point of enjoying this dance.

"Coach told us to live in the moment," Higgs said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and this happens to be my only time. It's a great feeling to be a part of the NCAA Tournament. It's what you come here to play for, so it's just a great feeling."

One that she won't ever forget, no matter what happens this weekend.