March 21, 2014

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2014 Women's Basketball Postseason Guide

– Going into the yearly preseason meeting when you ask University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball coach Kevin McMillan his expectations for the season, he replies that he hopes the Skyhawks will strive for the best this team can be.

So far the best for this year’s edition of Skyhawks is the program’s second outright Ohio Valley Conference championship along with their fourth consecutive OVC Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament berth. The Skyhawks were rewarded for their superior play with the No. 13 seed, the highest seed in program history after finishing the season with a 24-7 record and an RPI of 75.

Faced with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in program history, in conjunction with the school’s first Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament appearance, the Skyhawks faced two nationally ranked opponents along with a pair of Big 10 conference foes. The Skyhawks opened the season with a victory against Georgia State in the WNIT before traveling to No. 25 Gonzaga and completing the tournament with a win over Quinnipiac.

After two straight home games, the Skyhawks began a 10-game road swing with a trip to the Robert Morris Classic in Moon Township, Pa. on Nov. 29 which ultimately ran through Jan. 6 at Austin Peay. The Skyhawks traveled nearly 13,000 miles on the season with much of it coming during the 10-game swing. Despite the tough stretch against Ohio State, Illinois and No. 20 Florida State, the Skyhawks finished non-conference play with a 7-6 record heading into conference play.

Sticking with life on the road, the Skyhawks kicked off OVC play with three consecutive road games to open the conference slate. Opening league play against Jacksonville State and eventual OVC Coach of the Year Rick Pietri, the Skyhawks posted an 88-75 victory. The victory began a season-long 10-game winning streak which marked the best conference start in program history.

The conference season saw its lone hiccup of the season come at SIU Edwardsville on Feb. 8. Not only were the Skyhawks down a starter in Shai Warfield-Cross but their head coach did not make the trip because of the flu. Without two key members of the squad, the Skyhawks suffered their lone setback of league play with a 65-62 upset.

With defeat in their rearview mirror, the Skyhawks coasted to a five-game winning streak to capoff the regular season, ending league play with a 15-1 record and the program’s second outright OVC championship and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming OVC Tournament.

UT Martin proceeded to take the OVC Tournament by storm for the fourth consecutive season, trailing its opponents for a total of 25 seconds in their two games. Playing Eastern Kentucky in the tournament semifinals, the Skyhawks defeated the Lady Colonels 97-45 for the biggest margin of victory in OVC tournament history. The Skyhawks then became the fourth team overall – and first since 2001-04 – to win four consecutive OVC Tournament championships with a 78-66 victory over Belmont in the championship.

The prevailing theme of the season has been the play of senior guards Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome. Both scoring threats earned first team All-OVC status for the fourth time, with Butler claiming her first Player of the Year honor while Newsome was tabbed the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Joining the duo was freshman forward Ashia Jones who was tabbed Freshman of the Year as well as an All-OVC second team and All-Newcomer selection.

Butler posted a league leading 24.1 points per game while becoming the OVC’s all-time leading scorer on Jan. 18 against Morehead State. Her 2,846 career points rank 18th on the NCAA’s scoring list while her 128 consecutive games scoring in double figures ranks fifth in NCAA history. Newsome joined Butler on the OVC’s scoring leaderboard against Eastern Kentucky in the OVC semifinals, moving into second place with 2,558 career points. The duo is the first pair of teammates to rank first and second in their respective conference’s scoring history.

Over the course of the final 18 games of the season, Jones finished third on the team in total points while averaging 18.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in conference play. Her 18.1 points per game ranked fifth in the OVC along with leading the league with a 58.1 field goal percentage.

Heading into the tournament the Skyhawks have shown they can control the ball at both ends of the court. The combination of a ferocious full court pressure defense and an innate scoring ability, the Skyhawks outscored their conference opponents by 22 points per game. Not only did the Skyhawks score in triple figures on a school record eight occasions, they broke the team single season scoring record with 2,623 points while ranking third in the country with 84.6 points per game.

Needless to say when UT Martin heads to Chapel Hill for a first round matchup against No. 4 seed North Carolina, the Skyhawks are looking for more than just another scrapbook moment but rather the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory and the team’s best.

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