In a span of less than 24 hours Salem native Payton Curley experienced the most exciting time – as well as the most disappointing – in her collegiate basketball career.
Curley, a former standout player at Salem High School, is now a 5-10 junior guard for the Culver-Stockton women’s basketball team, a NAIA program from Canton.
Around 6 p.m. March 11 Curley and the rest of the Culver-Stockton Wildcat squad found out it had been awarded an at-large bid to the 40th annual NAIA Division I National Tournament, the first time the program advanced to the Division I field and only the third national-tourney berth in history – and the first since 1995.
However, at noon March 12 the bottom dropped out of the Wildcats’ joy, as the NAIA made another announcement – all of its winter championships had been canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak.
So, the banner campaign, which included a 20-11 overall record and a 16-8 Heart of America Conference mark, came to a screeching halt.
“I feel worse for our seniors,” Curley said. “We were on the waiting game. We lost our conference tournament and when we got the news Wednesday, we were so excited. Then when we received the news Thursday our hearts went out to the seniors. It’s sometimes a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Still, this past season was Curley’s finest. A starter all season, Curley earned Heart of America All-Conference Second-Team honors. She was second on the team in scoring with a 12.5 average while also averaging 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists and shot 83 percent from the free throw line.
She scored 10 or more points 22 times in the season and became the 25th player in program history to reach the 1,000-career point plateau.
“Personally I think this year was my favorite,” said Curley, who is back home in Salem for spring break. “It has to do with how close the players are. Every time we went on the floor it was about playing together. If we had any problem, we circled together and worked it out.”
She said it was versatility that allowed the Wildcats to become a 20-game winner and national qualifier this winter.
“It was a variety of things this season,” Curley said. “Some teams had certain strengths, but we were all-around. We had two strong posts and a lot of strong shooters. We have three guards and we can play in transition.”
Curley was an all-district and All-SCA guard for Salem, and as a senior she averaged 21 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.
For two seasons Curley teamed with 6-3 post Baylee Bilyeu to form a potent inside-outside threat for the Lady Tigers.
This season the former Salem teammates met as Heart of America rivals, as Bilyeu was playing her first season with Evangel.
“My defense has gotten a lot better since high school,” said Curley, who is majoring in rehab science. “Our coach says our defense creates our offense, and that’s the goal we go by.”
Next season Curley will add the role of senior leader to her Wildcat resume.
“We’re losing five seniors and I feel like next year I need to step up and be more of a leader,” she said. “To try and create the same culture as this year; to make sure everybody knows their role. We’re losing three starters who will be hard to replace. But we’re adding some strong new players and I think we could make it all the way back to the national tournament.”
If the Wildcats do, Curley will look forward to finally getting to play in it this time.