November 8, 2016

2016-17 Media Guide

Like many elite mid-major programs, the University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball team hopes to reload rather than regroup following the program’s third consecutive Ohio Valley Conference regular season title when the season tips off on Friday, Nov. 11.

The Skyhawks are coming off yet another banner year which featured the program’s third straight conference title, sixth consecutive postseason appearance and first postseason victory in 17 years after posting yet another 20-win season in 2015-16. While some of the faces on the roster return to the fold, they will be outnumbered with the addition of nine players who are looking for their first minutes in a Skyhawk uniform.

While UT Martin returns four players from a year ago, the Skyhawks will need to replace not only an All-OVC first team selection but one of the program’s all-time greats in addition to 52 percent of the team’s scoring lost to graduation. Looking to fill that gap will be the role of senior sharpshooter Jessy Ward who returns for her third season in a Skyhawk uniform.

Ward, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., enters her senior year as one of the program’s most prolific three-point shooters. Her 191 career three-pointers already rank fourth in program history while needing just 42 to move into second place. She maintained her record-setting pace with a strong junior campaign which resulted in All-OVC preseason honors after earning a spot on the second team a year ago by ranking seventh in the nation in three-point field goals made (104) and three-point field goals per game (3.25).

The Skyhawks return just four players who saw action last season in Ward, junior Shy Copney and sophomores Myah Taylor and Emanye Robertson. Copney joined the Skyhawks mid-season after fulfilling her transfer requirements and quietly produced a solid season by averaging 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.4 minutes of play. Taylor earned a spot on the OVC All-Newcomer squad after averaging 8.7 points per game while Robertson tallied 23 starts and turned it on down the stretch.

With just a handful of players returning to action, UT Martin will look to a deep stock of talented newcomers to fill the spots left open from graduation. Four players will see the floor despite spending the entire 2015-16 season in the program. Junior Ashton Feldhaus and redshirt freshman Ta’Naisha Hill are looking to rebound from preseason knee injuries while the duo of Teddy Vincent (Holy Cross) and Emily Eubank (Lipscomb) will join the flock after sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules.

The Skyhawks also welcome four true freshmen and a junior college transfer to the program. The freshmen quartet of Breanna Boggs, Lindsay Chrise, Ansley Eubank and Kendall Spray will get their first taste of college athletics while Mineral Area Community College All-American Janekia Mason looks for her Division-I debut.

“We are definitely young,” said UT Martin head coach Kevin McMillan. “Anytime you add so many new faces to a program, you are going to have a learning curve. No offense to our kids, but they do not know how to play the way we want them to play. The game of basketball has developed into watch the player with the ball and nobody else do anything. We can’t be successful doing that. You have to learn how to move the ball, space the floor, screen and cut to help each other out. We just do not know how to do that with our experience. These are good kids but I think it’s going to take some time to figure out how things are supposed to play out.”

Primed with the challenge of looking to mold a mixture of returners and newcomers, the Skyhawks got an early look at the team’s makeup over the summer, benefitting from a foreign tour of Costa Rica and the accompanied 15 practice days. Along with playing three games over the course of a week, the Skyhawks got to get a jump start on not only player development, but team chemistry.

“The trip was invaluable in terms of practice time and chemistry,” said McMillan. “Just being able to get together, practice and give the players a glimpse of how we run our program, the expectation of effort and different drills helps skip a vast learning curve come October. Along with the bonding experience of spending so much time with your teammates, it is wonderful for our program to be able to do that every four years. Just being able to go down there, play, get everyone minutes and mix-and-match rotations should only be beneficial.”

With such inexperience comes uncertainty. While the road has been paved and sealed with success and championships during the tenure of McMillan, to say the road hasn’t had its occasional pot hole would be erroneous. Over the past two seasons, the Skyhawks have had to deal with the departure of three All-Americans and rosters barely exceeding a starting-five but have still managed to win three consecutive regular season crowns.

“The players of the past have set this program in motion,” said McMillan. “It’s the Taylor Hall’s, Alecia Weatherly’s, Heather Butler’s, Jasmine Newsome’s, Megan White’s and Katie Schubert’s of the program which have put in the work to elevate this team to where it is today. That can never be overlooked. We haven’t had the absolute best players or top recruits, but we have had players buy into the system, take ownership of this program and the standard has risen with their contributions.”

A big reason for the team’s success along with the aforementioned program pillars rests on the shoulders of the head coach. McMillan enters his eighth year leading the Skyhawks where he already ranks as the program’s all-time wins leader with an overall record of 142-82 while boasting a dominating 93-23 mark in league play. Since taking over the reins of the Skyhawk program, UT Martin has won eight OVC titles – including four regular season and four tournament crowns. During his tenure the Skyhawks have reached the postseason in each of the past six seasons while eclipsing the 20-win mark five different times.

While the league’s seventh winningest coach in history doesn’t look for the credit but would rather let the players get the headlines - his colleagues and the league as a whole respects his contributions. McMillan has won three OVC Coach of the Year awards during his tenure, including back-to-back honors in 2015 and 2016 to become just the second coach in league history to win the award in consecutive seasons.

Armed with a veteran head coach and a talented mixture of newcomers, the Skyhawks will have far from an easy road to start the season with yet another loaded schedule on the horizon. UT Martin will take on teams from 11 different conferences, including nine teams who qualified for postseason play last year. Headlining the list are preseason ranked No. 5 Louisville (Nov. 11), No. 21 DePaul (Dec. 20) and No. 24 Missouri (Dec. 17) while Chattanooga (Dec. 3), Northwestern (Dec. 22) and Belmont (Jan. 5) are all receiving votes in the preseason polls.

“Top to bottom, this is probably the most difficult schedule that we have played,” said McMillan. “There are some really good teams with Chattanooga, Louisville and Vanderbilt coming here – all of which spent a bit of time ranked in the Top 25 last season. When you add teams like Missouri, DePaul, Northwestern, Arkansas State and Ohio, it is one of the toughest schedules that we have had. With a young team combined with eight opponents that ranked in the top 50 in RPI last season, it should make for a very difficult slate heading into conference play.”

While UT Martin’s strength of schedule might cause some diversions along the slate’s winding road, the Skyhawks will preach patience throughout the early winter months. “We feel like we can get better,” McMillan said. “We know that our league is a one-bid league and everything we do during the non-conference portion is to prepare us for what is ahead - when it comes time for the games to really count. Playing a challenging schedule will expose our weakness but will hopefully teach us how to be a better team and aim us towards peaking at the correct time with patience.”

Much of the Skyhawks’ success over the past seasons has come with the start of January and OVC play. Under McMillan the Skyhawks have won over 80 percent of their conference games, including a significant 21-game winning streak which spanned three different years. Over the past three seasons UT Martin has posted a 45-3 record in league contests while holding the nation’s fourth longest conference home winning streak of 26 straight games dating back to the 2012-13 season.

UT Martin will look to lean upon the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center’s home court advantage to speed up the learning curve. The Skyhawks once again led the OVC in home attendance, averaging 1,829 fans per contest - ranking nearly 1,000 more fans than the league average. As a whole, UT Martin ranked 46th out of 348 schools based on attendance percentages at 36.6 percent.

While the early part of the 2016-17 season may require patience to stabilize some inexperience, UT Martin will look for a mixture of raw talent, team chemistry, decorated coaching and a staunch home court advantage to produce yet another program standard: an OVC championship.

UT Martin officially opens the regular season on Friday, Nov. 11 against No. 5 ranked Louisville. Tipoff from the Elam Center is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Season and individual game tickets are currently on sale for the 2016-17 Skyhawk basketball season. Reserve your tickets today by calling ticket operations manager Fran Spears at (731) 881-7207.