When  Brenda Nichols looks back on her first two seasons as head coach, it's not hard for her to realize how far her Sam Houston women's basketball program has come.

In 2007, the Bearkat women won only two conference games. The team suffered through a 1-27 season in 2008.

"We were the worst women's basketball program in the league, no doubt about it," Nichols said. "But that just makes what are players have accomplished here since then that much more amazing."

After Sam Houston's first Southland Conference regular season championship and post-season tournament finals appearance in the program's 26 years in the league, the Bearkat women's basketball team await word Monday as to who will be their opponent in the Women's National Invitational Tournament.

The WNIT and last year's Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI) stand as Sam Houston's first ever NCAA Division I women's basketball national tournament appearances.  This year's 18-14 overall record marks the program's third consecutive winning season. Sam Houston has had only two other winning seasons (in 1988 and 1996) at the Division I level.

"When we got hired seven years ago we knew we were going to have to roll up our sleeves and work," Nichols said. "It's taken a lot of hard work to get this program where it is now and this year's senior class was a big part of turning this program around."

Those seniors - Britni Martin, Sequeena Thomas and Chanice Smith - each were voted as All-Southland Conference performance this year. All three rank among the 14 Sam Houston women's basketball players who have scored more than 1,000 career points.

"It means a lot to all three of us seniors to have been part of finally bringing a women's basketball conference championship to Sam Houston State," Martin, the second all-time leading scorer in the program's history, said. "We're like a family here."

After taking the Bearkats from last place to first during the past seven years, Nichols earned Southland Conference "Coach of the Year" honors last week.

"Coach of the year is an honor not for me but our assistant coaches and all the players," Nichols said. "Not many people have the privilege of coaching at their alma mater. I was thrilled to get that opportunity to come back here and really appreciate all the support we've gotten from the administration at Sam Houston State."

Nichols was the leading scorer for the 18-9 Sam Houston squad in 1988, coming to Huntsville after two years as an NJCAA All-American at Western Texas Junior College. Her 17.8 career scoring average stands as the second highest mark in Bearkat women's basketball history.

"All three of our seniors now have scored more points than I did and I'm proud of them for that, but I have to remind them every now and then that they played more games," Nichols joked. "Really, I owe Sam Houston so much. I got my start here, met my husband here and now have had the opportunity to bring our sport to prominence here."

Thomas and sophomore Angela Beadle also matched one of Nichols' accomplishments when they were named to the 2013 Southland All-Tournament team. Only two other players have achieved that honor and Nichols was the first as a Bearkat senior in 1989.

Prior to returning to Huntsville as Sam Houston head coach, Nichols was head coach at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.; served as an assistant at South Alabama and Memphis and was head coach at Okaloosa-Walton Community College and Western Texas.

Her first collegiate assistant coaching job came at Pensacola Junior College in Florida where Bob Marlin, who directed the Bearkat men's basketball program to three conference titles between 1999 and 2010, was then coaching.

Nichols, her assistants Jamene Caldwell , Leslie Reinecker and Lauren Tippet and all the Bearkat student-athletes have become familiar faces around Huntsville due to their work in the community. The Kats participate in many community service activities including reading to elementary school children and giving talks to older kids about the importance of education and hard work.

Nichols and her Bearkat players came close to earning the program its first NCAA tournament berth Saturday in a close loss to Oral Roberts.

"They (Oral Roberts) have some experience in going to tournaments and being in those situations," Nichols said. "This is something our kids are learning how to go into tournament time, learn to play, learn to win at this, and I think we're going to get better at it.

"Our team went out and battled hard. They did everything we asked them to do, so I am very proud of

them.  Now we have another opportunity to record more firsts for this program as we head to the WNIT."

Thomas, who stands as the only Sam Houston women's basketball player to post both 1,000 career points and rebounds, sums up the team's attitude about the success of the Bearkat program.

"We have come a long way in my four years here," Thomas said.  "We just fought hard and played together. From where we used to be to where we are now, we have everything to be proud of. We have come such a long way."