WOMEN'S BASKETBALL TEAM GELS JUST IN TIME FOR THIRD STRAIGHT NCAA TOURNEY APPEARANCE
March 14, 2013
MARTIN, Tenn. – Things weren’t looking so good for The University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball team in early February. After a narrow 66-63 home loss to SIU Edwardsville on Feb. 9, the Skyhawks were 11-14 overall and head coach Kevin McMillan was openly wondering if his team would qualify in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
Fast forward exactly one month later – March 9 at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville – and there was McMillan and the 2012-13 Skyhawks having not only qualifying for the league tournament, but cutting down the nets once again after capturing their third OVC Tournament title in as many years.
The roller-coaster season full of ups and downs was salvaged by a season-best eight game winning streak to close out the regular season and league tournament. UT Martin won its final five regular season games by an average of 16.4 points per outing, clinching the No. 4 seed (and automatic bye into the quarterfinals) on the final day of the regular season.
Ironically, the OVC Tournament mirrored the Skyhawks’ regular season in a way. UT Martin trailed 14-0 over six minutes into its quarterfinal game against Eastern Kentucky before prevailing 78-63. On the next day, the Skyhawks trailed by six points to top seeded Eastern Illinois with 3:38 remaining before closing the game on a 13-5 run that resulted in a 71-69 victory.
Then there was the OVC championship game against No. 2 seed Tennessee Tech, who also just happened to be making its third straight appearance in the finals. The Skyhawks faced a three-point deficit with 12 seconds left in regulation before forcing overtime. In the extra period, UT Martin accounted for the first five points and never looked back in an 87-80 triumph for its third win in three days.
Some observers may point to the team’s improved defensive intensity as the culprit for the Skyhawks’ comeback to the postseason. During the 8-0 winning streak, UT Martin limited its opponents to a .374 field goal percentage, compared to a .424 field goal percentage in the previous 25 games.
Others may indicate the early season scheduling against the toughest competition that UT Martin has ever faced prepared the Skyhawks for the challenge in March. Six of UT Martin’s first 11 opponents represented five of the six “power conferences”, including the defending national champion Baylor as well as 2012 Final Four participant Stanford. Just like the OVC Tournament, UT Martin played three games in three days at an extremely high level in the Wahine Classic (Baylor and Stanford are currently 62-3 combined and ranked No. 1 and No. 4 in the country, respectively).
The prevailing theme of the season has been the play of junior guards Jasmine Newsome and Heather Butler. Both scoring dynamos earned first team All-OVC status for the third time last week, with Newsome claiming Player of the Year honors for the second time in as many years. The pair gives UT Martin the distinction of being the only team in the nation to boast two of the nation’s top-10 scorers, as Newsome is tied for fourth at 22.9 points per game and Butler is tied for eighth with 22.0 points per outing.
Newsome elevated her play at the OVC Tournament, starting with a tourney record 41 point performance against Eastern Kentucky in the quarterfinals. The next day against Eastern Illinois, she added 23 points and 10 rebounds for her seventh career double-double. In the finals against Tennessee Tech, the 5-6 lightning-quick guard drove coast-to-coast for a layup with two seconds left that forced overtime on her way to a game-high 34 points. Once the dust cleared, Newsome had set an OVC Tournament record with 98 points on her way to Most Valuable Player honors.
Butler’s tournament performance was noteworthy as well. The 5-5 sharpshooter poured in 23.0 points per game and sank the game-winning shot in the OVC semifinals against Eastern Illinois – a pull-up 15-foot jumper with four seconds remaining. Butler, the first basketball player in UT Martin history to amass 2,000 career points regardless of gender, extended her remarkable streaks of scoring double-figures in every career game (96 and counting) and making a three-pointer in 79 straight games (an NCAA record).
The Skyhawks also received a big lift this season from senior Rickiesha Bryant, who set a UT Martin single-season record with a .643 field goal percentage (128-for-199) and 85 blocks. The 6-3 post presence averaged a double-double in OVC play and came up huge down the stretch in the OVC Tournament, earning all-tournament accolades. She compiled totals of 13.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game while shooting a staggering 77.8 percent (14-for-18) from the floor and 86.7 percent (13-for-15) from the free throw line in tournament play. Her OVC championship performance against Tennessee Tech – career-high 20 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field, including the first five points of overtime – will go down as one of the best clutch games in UT Martin history.
Reliable scoring punch on the wing from a number of performers also was a key ingredient to the mix in 2012-13. Freshman Katie Schubert led the OVC in three-point field goal percentage, canning 50 of her 116 attempts from downtown (43.1 percent). Senior Shelby Crawford is shooting 51.4 percent from the floor during the Skyhawks’ current eight-game winning streak. Junior Megan White drained multiple three-pointers seven times in a span of 10 games early in the season before a leg injury forced her to miss significant time. Freshman Sydney Vanlandingham started in eight games and tallied three double-digit scoring games in the span of six OVC games midway through the season. Freshman Chelsey Hall also came up big in the OVC Tournament, logging a career-high 24 minutes in the quarterfinals before sinking a pair of critical free throws with 12 seconds left in regulation in the championship against Tennessee Tech.
Quite simply, it won’t matter who UT Martin is paired against when the brackets are announced on Monday, March 18. With the Skyhawks having already faced five top-10 teams in the last three years alone under McMillan, UT Martin is ready for the challenge once the cameras roll and bright lights are turned on in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.