HAMPTON ——David Six felt a little like he'd just stepped onto the stage at an American Idol audition.
"When you're a singer, and a music exec says sing, you better be ready right then and there," he said.
"I've got to prove it right now. This is my one shot," Six said. "I would always tell my mom before she passed — 'I can't change careers now. It's too late. I gotta make this work.' I just tried to kick the door down."
Since the 2009-10 season, Six has led the Lady Pirates to a 68-23 record that includes a 42-6 mark in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. HU's 27-17 non-conference record includes a 15-point win against Florida last season and victories against Pitt (60-37) and Boston College (71-63) this year.
The Lady Pirates, 23-4 and regular-season MEAC champions for the second straight year who will begin their quest for a third straight tournament title on Wednesday, entered last year's NCAA tournament with a 13th seed, the highest ever for a MEAC team, and took Kentucky to overtime before falling 66-62.
"We can play with anybody, no matter what the name on their jersey says," said senior point guard Jericka Jenkins, a first-team all-MEAC selection who leads the nation with 7.4 assists per game. "We're all college women playing basketball. That's it."
It wasn't always that simple.
Six went 331-93 and won two state championships in 14 seasons with the Hampton High girls team, but his arrival at HU signaled a sea change for the Lady Pirates, coming off a 16-16 season.
"I remember our first practices when we came back from the summer — the track and the running," senior forward Melanie Warner said. "It was nothing we were used to."
Change wasn't an immediate good thing. HU got off to a 2-7 start in Six's first season, but that included a 63-54 loss to Georgia Tech on Dec. 28 and a 54-51 loss to Temple on Dec. 8 that gave both coach and players pause.
With the Lady Pirates leading Temple with 40 seconds remaining, Six called a timeout to deliver one vital message: "I told them I didn't care if somebody pulled a gun out — don't turn the ball over," Six said. "And we turned the ball over and we lost by three, and I remember as I was talking to them after the game, I was so frustrated.
"I was telling them, 'Get out of your own way. ... You keep finding ways to not be successful.' I never saw a man who was running forward looking behind, and that's essentially what they were doing — (thinking) 'We're not supposed to be playing Temple tough.' The hardest thing to teach somebody is how to win."
Against Georgia Tech 20 days later, HU led by a point midway through the second half and outrebounded the taller Yellow Jackets 31-30.
"After that game I was like, 'Well, maybe,' " Jenkins said. " 'Maybe we should listen to this guy.' "
HU would go on to finish 20-12, its first 20-win season since 2002-03, and win its first MEAC tournament championship since 2004.
As an encore, the Lady Pirates went 25-7 last season, winning the regular-season league title with the 15-1 record they matched this year, and added a second tournament crown.
The wins have come by identifying and sticking to a formula founded on three non-negotiable principles: ball security, defense and rebounding.
"The way he pushes us, the way he wants perfection — it really kind of forces you to just get it right," Warner said.