JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Nov. 17, 2005) - Head coach Karen Kemp and the Lady Bucs basketball squad are set to open the 2005-06 season this weekend, as they travel to Starkville, Miss., to face SEC foe Mississippi State at 2 p.m. CT, Sunday. The Lady Bucs will be looking to avenge last season's 74-64 loss in Johnson City, in the teams' first-ever meeting.
After ending last season with an impressive conference tournament run, the 2005-06 Lady Buccaneer basketball team looks for big things in the coming season. After posting a 9-11 record in regular season conference play, the Lady Bucs stormed into the postseason, blasting through the first two rounds of the conference tournament, including a 55-50 upset win over top-seeded Chattanooga to advance to the conference semifinal. The Lady Bucs then came within two points of the conference final, falling to Georgia Southern in a 73-71 overtime heartbreaker.
Following last year's postseason success and four of five starters returning, head coach Karen Kemp has nothing but high expectations for the upcoming season.
"As a coach, you always have high expectations," said Kemp, who is entering her 12th season at the helm of the ETSU program. "Last year's postseason gave the players a lot of confidence, and really gave them something to build on over the summer."
A top priority for the Lady Bucs will be replacing the inside presence of 2004-05 Conference Player of the Year Tiffani Mayes. Mayes led the team in scoring last season with 19.7 ppg, including three performances with 30 or more points.
"We definitely have big shoes to fill," said Kemp on making up Mayes' numbers. "She gave us some big numbers and we're going to have to have two or three people step up and make up those numbers. Our perimeter game is going to have to be stronger and B.J. (Banjo) is going to have to do more scoring. Most of the rebounding will fall on Candace's (Gibson) shoulders. Where she had seven or eight rebounds a game last year, she'll have to get 10 or 12."
Leading the Lady Bucs in the backcourt will be senior point guard B.J. Banjo. Banjo had a banner year in 2004-05, scoring 15.7 ppg, nearly 10 points more than her scoring average from the previous season. The then-junior also put up career numbers in assists (118), rebounds (125), and steals (76). Banjo's improvements were also noticed in conference play as she was named to the all-conference first team following the regular season, and was also a first team all-conference tournament honoree.
"B.J. and Candace really gained a lot of confidence after their play down the stretch last season," said Kemp on her senior duo. "We'll be counting on both of them to put double-digit points and minutes every game, and step up and perform consistently day in and day out. To be successful this season, B.J. is really going to have to take care of the ball and Candace is going to have to control the boards."
Joining Banjo in the ETSU backcourt will be fellow veteran guard, junior Brooke Wilhoit, a member of the all-conference freshman team following her rookie campaign in 2003-04. Wilhoit dished out 53 assists last season, the second-most on the team, along with 36 steals, the fourth-best total on the squad.
Also expected to see some minutes at the guard positions will be junior Holly Moring, along with sophomores Alisha Holmes and Kelly Turman. Moring has been a consistent spark off the bench in her first two seasons at ETSU, while Turman showed much promise during her rookie campaign, especially in her 21-point effort at Chattanooga (1/29/05). Holmes also displayed signs of a bright future, averaging 12.3 minutes in 28 games as a freshman.
"Our perimeter play will be our strength this season," said Kemp. "We have a lot of guards who will be able to push the ball up and down the floor. We'll be playing a lot of full court man-to-man, trying to create turnovers and get some easy buckets."
New to the Lady Buc backcourt lineup will be freshmen Adaeze Azubuike and Farren Stackhouse. Azubuike, an athletic shooting guard, is expected to make an immediate impact after a stellar prep career in which she helped her Lexington Catholic squad to the 2005 Kentucky State Championship. Stackhouse, who is also likely to see time in the post, also brings some impressive credentials to ETSU, after averaging 18.0 points per game, along with 7.0 rebounds per contest during her senior season at Camden County High School in St. Mary's, Ga.
"Azubuike will step up early," Kemp said of the freshman guard. "She has a lot of quickness and is very coachable. She's eager to learn and really wants to be out there, so I think she'll contribute immediately."
ETSU will rely on senior Candace Gibson to be a force on the inside throughout the season. Gibson also had a career year last season, pulling down 8.1 rpg, tops on the team. The junior was especially tough down the stretch in ETSU's conference tournament run, tallying a monster 27 points and 18 rebounds in the Lady Bucs' loss to Georgia Southern in the conference semi-final.
The Lady Bucs also return a pair of sophomore forwards, coming off stellar rookie campaigns last season. Nichelle Akers led all freshmen with 22 starts, followed by Michele DeVault, who got the starting nod in 20 contests. DeVault led the rookie contingent in scoring with 6.4 ppg, with Akers chipping in with 4.6.
"Nichelle and Michele had a major impact last year," said Kemp. "They need to come in and build on what they started as freshmen. They are both much better players now, and have really grown and matured over the summer."
Akers, a defensive force last season, will be expected to step into more of a scoring role this year, whereas DeVault, a three-point threat, will need to do more ball-handling and improve her mid-range game. According to Kemp, both players returned to Johnson City this fall with expanded games and will see time at both the guard and forward positions.
Also in the Buccaneer frontcourt will be sophomore Jenny Norman, along with rookie Sharnae Hunt. Both listed at 6-2, Norman and Hunt add needed height under the Buccaneer basket. Norman played in 18 games last season, while Hunt averaged 10.0 ppg and 9.0 rpg game in her prep days in Annapolis, Md.
The Atlantic Sun Conference
The Lady Bucs enter a revamped Atlantic Sun Conference, which welcomes back eight of last year's 11 member schools, plus newly added ETSU, along with Kennesaw State and North Florida. With the departure of Central Florida, last season's regular season champion, the A-Sun looks wide open going into the 2005-06 campaign. Belmont is the highest returning finisher from last season, coming off a fourth-place showing during the regular season. Stetson, which won an NCAA tournament bid after winning the conference tournament, finished fifth in regular season play.
Historically, the Lady Bucs have limited experience against Atlantic Sun teams. This season's meetings with Campbell, Florida Atlantic, Gardner-Webb, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, and North Florida will be the first in program history. The Lady Bucs have only played current A-Sun schools a total of eight times, posting an even 4-4 record.
ETSU has seen Mercer a total of four times in program history, with the series standing at 2-2. However, the Lady Bucs haven't played the Bears since the 1984-85 season, long before most of the current ETSU players were even born. The Lady Bucs have met Belmont a combined three times, taking on the Bearcats most recently in 2002. Gibson was the lone member of the team that dropped a 94-71 loss to the Nashville squad, making the senior the only current Lady Buc to have ever faced an A-Sun opponent. ETSU's also fell in its lone meeting with Stetson, losing a tight 74-71 decision during the 1995-96 campaign.
"It will definitely be a challenge and it's been a long time since we've played anyone from the A-Sun," said Kemp on the new conference. "It's a competitive league and come the first conference game, we need to be prepared and ready to compete."
ETSU's inaugural Atlantic Sun competition is scheduled for Dec. 1, when Belmont comes to Johnson City, closely followed by Lipscomb on Dec. 3, also in Memorial Center.
The Non-Conference Schedule
The 2005-06 Lady Bucs will waste no time in the early season, jumping right into high-level competition from some of the top conferences in the nation. First up, ETSU will travel to Starkville, Miss., to take on Mississippi State, from the always powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC). In the teams' first-ever meeting last season, the Bulldogs bested the Lady Bucs by a 74-64 margin in Johnson City.
"I always try and make our non-conference schedule as tough as possible to prepare for conference play," said Kemp. "The teams we're playing this year have all been in postseason play year in and year out. Hopefully by the time we're through our non-conference schedule, we'll have had enough experience to prepare us for the A-Sun."
Following MSU, ETSU heads north to face Cincinnati, a recent addition to the challenging Big East Conference. The teams have faced off twice in program history, with the Bearcats taking both matchups, the last in 1999. Also on the non-conference schedule will be Eastern Kentucky (Nov. 29), Western Kentucky (Dec. 11), and Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 28), along with Southern Conference foes College of Charleston (Dec. 7), and Appalachian State (Dec. 21).