November 6, 2013

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- Coming off the program’s third consecutive Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance, the University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball team is primed for another deep postseason run.

In a preseason poll of the league’s head coaches and sports information directors, the UT Martin women’s basketball team has been selected to win the Ohio Valley Conference West Division. The Skyhawks picked up 22 of 24 first-place votes while wrapping up 132 points in the West.

With the high standards set for the program, fifth-year head coach Kevin McMillan and the Skyhawks will have to rely on their three starters among eight returners from last year’s championship team. Among the top returnees is the dynamic scoring duo of senior guards Jasmine Newsome and Heather Butler.

Despite normally being outsized on the court, Newsome and Butler have risen above their stout competition to set to new precedents at UT Martin. While rewriting the UT Martin record books, Newsome and Butler made national headlines this past season as they ranked as the only duo to both rank in the top-10 nationally in scoring as Newsome tallied 22.6 point per game (fifth) and Butler trailed with 22.4 point per game (sixth).

Newsome opens the season on the country’s national radar. On top of being named the league’s Preseason Player of the Year and All-OVC member, Newsome has been named to several prestigious preseason lists. College Sports Madness named Newsome its Mid-Major Preseason Player of the Year, OVC Preseason Player of the Year and an All-Mid Major first team All-American. A Millington native, Newsome became the program’s first AP All-American after being named the league’s Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, along with Defensive Player of the Year honors. She set numerous scoring records in last season’s OVC Tournament with 98 total points over three games, including a tournament-record 41 point performance against Eastern Illinois.

Throughout her first three seasons as a Skyhawk, Newsome has rewritten the UT Martin record books. Newsome ranks second on the all-time scoring list (1,958 points) while setting records with most single-season points (770), single-season free throws (167), single-season assists (193) and 508 career assists. She also ranks in the top-10 in 19 statistical categories.

Butler is yet another prolific scorer who’s first three seasons have proved to not only break previous records, but completely redefine UT Martin’s history. Butler was tabbed Preseason All-OVC after becoming UT Martin’s all-time leading scorer with 2,111 points, a mark which only trails the OVC career mark by 415 points. This preseason, Butler has joined Newsome on several preseason lists. Butler has been named an All-Mid Major All-American by College Sports Madness along with All-OVC first team honors. A Medina native, Butler set a pair of NCAA three-point records with 80 consecutive games with a three-point field goal and 34 consecutive games in a single season.

Butler has meanwhile revolutionized the scoring logs, ranking atop career points (2,111), single-season field goals made (266), single-season field goals attempted (704), career field goals attempted (1822), single-season three-pointers made (105), single-season three-pointers attempted (319), career three-pointers made (288) and career three-pointers attempted (793). She also holds the longest active NCAA streak of consecutive games with double-digit points (97) and ranks in the top-10 in 13 statistical categories.

Often lost in the shuffle of the dynamic combo of Newsome and Butler is fellow four-year senior Megan White. A native of Heath, Ohio, White has proved to a leader on and off the court. After being a part of McMillan’s initial signing class, White had her best statistical season in 2012-13. Despite injuries plaguing most of her years, White appeared in 22 games for the Skyhawks this past season, providing depth at the wing position and a scoring threat from the perimeter. Twenty-five of White’s 30 shots made last season came from beyond the arc. Her scoring ability, combined with her ability to contain her opponent defensively has continued to build her reputation as one of the most decorated individuals in program history.

“Our three seniors are the most decorated class that we’ve ever had at UT Martin, both individually and as a team,” said McMillan. “Megan gets lost in the shuffle a lot of times, but she is a leader that has completely sold out to the team. Jasmine and Heather, their stuff is easy to see but Megan competes for everything she has. Academically those three put in the work, they are active in the community and they are exactly what you are looking for to showcase a program.”

The trio of Skyhawk seniors, along with 13 players with one year or less of program experience, will have to quickly adjust to the team’s system with yet another difficult schedule on the horizon. The season’s upcoming schedule is highlighted by two Southeastern Conference members, two Big 10 Conference schools, an Atlantic Coast Conference foe, the Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) and 10 opponents with postseason appearances last season.

“We have a lot of road games, seeing stops at some of the top teams and conferences in the country,” McMillan stated. “You’ve got Florida State and Ohio State which are perennial tournament performers. Illinois is rising to the top of the Big Ten while Missouri returns nearly everyone. You look at Alabama which is another SEC team and Winthrop, which many people don’t know much about, but is one of the best mid-majors in the country.”

“We could look back at the end of the season and this could be the most difficult schedule that we’ve ever played overall. The Baylor, Stanford and Notre Dame’s aren’t there, but the overall quality of the schedule could be the best we’ve ever faced,” McMillan continued.

The Skyhawks will look to their depth at every position as they make a push for their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, a feat which has only been accomplished three times in OVC history (Austin Peay, 2001-04; Middle Tennessee, 1983-86;  Tennessee Tech, 1989-’93).

Once you look past Butler and Newsome at the guard position you’ve got several newcomers. Freshmen Shai Warfield-Cross and Elizabeth Masengil will look to make immediate contributions in the Skyhawk backcourt along with the return of sophomore guard Chelsey Hall.

“Warfield-Cross can play anywhere from guard to the wing position,” described McMillan. “She brings great athleticism to the table. It’s going to come down to how quickly she can match her skills to her athleticism and figure out the system in general. Masengil is a scorer, a big guard who can play multiple positions.”

Along the wing the Skyhawks will look to their third returning starter, sophomore Katie Schubert to increase production. Schubert saw action in 33 games for the Skyhawks, leading the OVC with a .432 shooting percentage from three-point range. She averaged 5.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 30.0 minutes per game. She scored a season-best 14 points against Tennessee Tech while tallying double figures in five contests. Schubert will be joined on the wing by White, junior Karisma Tyson and freshman Trischa Lacy.

“We’re looking for Katie to shoulder some of the scoring load as she continues to develop into that third option,” said McMillan. “Trischa Lacy can absolutely wear it out from long range which could be a huge threat for us. Tyson can also bring an element of length that can play the guard or wing position as well.”

After graduating 75% of its offensive production from the post, UT Martin will look to a mixture of returners and newcomers to fill the void. The Skyhawks will look to freshman Tiara Caldwell and sophomore Chelsea Roberts to step in and begin to contribute immediately. Sophomore Cortrice Golden looks to return from a season-ending knee injury having appeared in eight games before going down. Freshmen Ashia Jones, Jordan Johnson and Tiffany Jones will each compete for time in the low post.

“Roberts and Caldwell are both very talent kids,” McMillan began. “Both of those kids could really help us. Their understanding of the system is growing daily while their skill and athleticism is impressive. Golden is very talented while Johnson will try to rebound from an injury that kept her out last year. We have a very good group of basketball players, probably the best pure basketball players at that position that we’ve ever had.”

As they season begins and the preseason preparation becomes game tested, this mixture of returners and newcomers will have little time to adjust. Unlike in previous years, UT Martin is no longer a sleeper but rather the target on every opponent’s schedule. With the unique blend of senior depth and leadership and talented newcomers, the outlook is bright as the Skyhawks look to continue making waves on the national stage.

“I think we have the potential to be better than we have been,” stated McMillan. “I think there are big question marks, but every team has them at this point in the year. The question for our entire team is who is going to learn the system? We have a lot of options, we just have to find the right mixture of talent, athleticism and understanding. Once we find that mixture, it will be interesting to see what the “best” this team has to offer will be.”

The Skyhawks will open their season on Friday, Nov. 8 when they play host to Georgia State in the first round of the Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament. Tip off from the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center is schedule for 6 p.m.

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