BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Fresh off a very successful campaign, the Union women’s basketball team is hungry for more in 2012-13.
The pieces came together just right for Union in 2011-12 as the Lady Bulldogs went 25-8 overall, won the Appalachian Athletic Conference Tournament and advanced to the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship Tournament for the fourth time in program history. The 25 wins equal the program record, which had been accomplished twice before.
The Lady Bulldogs open the 2012-13 campaign Friday and Saturday as they host the Union College Classic. Union will face Pensacola Christian (Fla.) on Friday at 8 p.m. and Alice Lloyd (Ky.) on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Union lost a couple of key pieces from last year’s championship squad; however, the Lady Bulldogs more than return enough firepower to make another title run.
“Our style is not going to change,” said Union head coach Tim Curry. “We’ve got a lot of experience coming back. We’ve got three starters back, but really we’ve got four.”
Topping the list is senior Lindsey Waters, the reigning AAC Player of the Year. She is joined by senior Laura Perkins and junior Alyson Roberts. Waters started all 33 games, while Roberts started 30 of the 31 she played in with Perkins starting 24 of 33 games in 2011-12. Also back is junior Amber Taylor, who started all 11 games she played in before having to miss the second half of the season.
Union also returns five others, who will provide some solid depth off the bench.
With all this experience back, it lessens the blow of losing three seniors for last year’s team, including two four-year starters in Kara Pile and Courtney Thomas.
“Losing the three we lost, we lose a lot of experience,” said Curry. “So, we have to have a lot of people step up and help fill the void.”
Pile averaged 11.8 points per game and earned All-AAC Second Team honors, finishing her career with 1,222 points and 436 rebounds. Thomas averaged 5.1 points and 5.3 rebounds last year and graduated seventh on the all-time rebounding list with 583. Kathryn Clark was a solid contributor in 2011-12, appearing in all 33 games and starting five and averaging 3.2 points per game.
Union was the second-best scoring team in the AAC last year, averaging 69.3 point per game and had the league’s third-best scoring defense, holding opponents to 61.6 points per game. The Lady Bulldogs also led the league at the free-throw line as it made 72.7 percent from the charity stripe.
It’s no secret a lot of the team’s success centers around 6-foot-1 center Waters, who earned NAIA All-American Second Team honors last year. She averaged a double-double with her 20.7 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. In all, she set four school records – most free throws made in a season (191), most rebounds in a season (367), most blocked shots in a season (82) and best blocks per game average in a season (2.48).
“Lindsey set the bar high for herself. She’s certainly our go-to player; no question about that,” Curry said of Waters. “She’s, without a doubt, one of the best players in the country.”
Joining Waters in the starting lineup will be Taylor at the point, Roberts and Perkins as shooting guards, and freshman Haley Perkins as wing/post player.
Taylor was having a nice season before having to miss the final22 games. Through 11 contests, she averaged 12.0 points and 4.5 rebounds and dished out 44 assists and had 25 steals. Roberts and Laura Perkins averaged 8.2 and 7.7 points per game, respectively. Roberts led the team with 52 3-pointers made. The duo also combined for 112 assists.
Haley Perkins is a 5-foot-10 guard and averaged 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds last year for Glasgow (Ky.) High School, helping her team win the Region 4 championship and advance to the KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen.
Key returners off the bench include Brooke Hill and Marah Rice. Hill earned a spot on the AAC’s All-Freshmen Team last season, averaging 5.4 points and 3.3 rebounds. She was second on the team in blocks with 27. Rice, a junior, chipped in 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, really improving her play as the season progressed. Rice came up big in the AAC Tournament championship game as she hit three 3-pointers to keep Union in the game, turning a 26-12 deficit to 31-23 margin at the half.
Also back are Kaley Griffin, Jennifer Thomas and Sarah Scruggs. The trio saw regular time off the bench in 2011-12 and combined to average 3.7 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.
Including Haley Perkins, the Lady Bulldogs have six freshmen who will be battling for playing time. Helping out on the wing will be 5-foot-8 Macy Clontz, who averaged 13.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last year for South Laurel (Ky.) High School. At the post, Union will have the options of plugging in Lydia Nash and Adreana Jefferson. Nash and Jefferson present Curry with two different styles of play to turn to. Nash, who averaged 12.7 points and 5.6 rebounds for Boone County (Ky.) High School last season, fits the mold of a typical, physical post player. Meanwhile Jefferson is a more athletic, run-the-floor type of player. Jefferson helped Parkview (Ga.) High School to a 30-1 record last year and an appearance in the Elite 8 last year.
Also new on the squad are Taylor Wilson and Taylor Atkinson. Wilson helped Bell County (Ky.) High School to a 19-12 record last season, playing in all 31 games. Atkinson, meanwhile, was a key member of the Powell County (Ky.) High School team which went 16-13 overall last year and won the District 56 championship.
Winning the AAC will not be an easy task for the Lady Bulldogs, who are picked to finish second in the league behind Tennessee Wesleyan which has won the regular-season crown the past two years.
“Women’s basketball in the AAC has gotten tougher every single year, especially the last few years,” said Curry. “You can be beat at home or on the road in this league.”
Milligan (Tenn.), Montreat (N.C.) and Virginia Intermont have been tough outs, Curry noted, and Reinhardt (Ga.) has added a new head coach and Bryan (Tenn.) is showing improvement.
Last year’s push to the finish was anything but easy for Tennessee Wesleyan or Union, which recorded conference marks of 15-3 and 13-5 to place first and second, respectively. Tennessee Wesleyan lost two of its first four conference games and had to climb up the standings the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Union set in the middle of the pack on Feb. 2 with an 8-5 conference record and had to win its final five games to lock up the second seed.
“You have to show up and play every night or you’re going to lose in this league,” Curry said.
Outside of the conference, the schedule is not an easy one. Union will face perennial powerhouse and No. 4 Indiana Wesleyan on Nov. 16 at the Grace (Ind.) College Classic. The Lady Bulldogs will also play host Grace, which ranks sixth in a conference where the top five are either ranked or receiving votes, on Nov. 17.