GREENWOOD – After going one-and-done in the Peach Belt tournament in 2014-15, the Lander women’s basketball team returned to the top of the conference last season with a PBC championship.
Now, on the eve of the 2016-17 season opener, the program looks to take the next step.
“My big challenge to my upperclassmen,” said head coach Kevin Pederson, “has been to tell them ‘you guys have enjoyed almost everything you could have done. We’ve won an East Division title, we’ve won another East Division title and tied for the best record in the Peach Belt last year. Then, we go and win the Peach Belt Tournament. We’re a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. We close last season on a 13-game winning streak leading into the NCAAs. You guys have literally checked every box except for NCAA Tournament success.'”
Lander has won 32 of its last 38 games in conference play, but the Bearcats have not won an NCAA Tournament game since their magical run to the Elite Eight in 2012. Upsets losses to Wingate and Francis Marion in the first round ended Lander’s last two seasons.
“It’s frustrating because we’ve been to several NCAA Tournaments, we’ve had a lot of success, we’ve made the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight,” said Pederson, “but no one on this team has had any of that success. Two years ago, it was a good step up to get to [the NCAA Tournament], but last year was different. We had a better team, we’d been there before and we get there and we just play poorly. I know how much it stings me, I’m trying to find out how much it stings them.
The Bearcats open the 2016-17 season on Nov. 11-12, as they travel to Harrogate, Tenn., for the PBC/SAC Challenge. Lander will play Lincoln Memorial at 8 p.m., Friday, and Carson-Newman at 2 p.m., on Saturday.
Lander will be looking to replace graduating seniors Bre Crum, the reigning Peach Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and Ashleigh Zandi, who provided a steady presence during her Bearcat career.
“We lose Ashleigh Zandi,” Pederson said, “who was as good a team leader as we’ve ever had. We lose Bre Crum, who was as good a player in the league as there’s been in a while. It’s going to be a lot different this year. I think it’s going to take this team some time to figure out what exactly they’re capable of doing.”
The Bearcats will lean on a pair of all-conference performers to lead the way in 2016-17. Ty’hesha Reynolds (Savannah, Ga.), a two-time All-PBC honoree and the lone senior on the roster, returns after averaging 12.9 points per game and dishing a team-high 133 assists last season. Junior Breshay Johnson (Hopkins, S.C.), who was named second-team All-Peach Belt, was Lander’s top scorer and rebounder in 2015-16, netting 16.3 points and grabbing 7.8 rebounds per contest.
“Breshay is in the conversation for the best player in this league,” said Pederson. “Ty Reynolds is going to be in the conversation for one of the best guards in this leage.”
Joining Reynolds in the backcourt is junior Mylea McKenith (Durham, N.C.), who played in all 32 games last season and shot 40% from the floor. Sophomore Victoria Baldwin (Hoover, Ala.) is a three-point specialist who will may be called on more in her second season. The Bearcats also welcome in six new guards into the program: junior Zuzana Talackova (Horice, Czech Republic); and freshmen Mahagony Davis (Orlando, Fla), Jessica Harris (Sumter, S.C.), Alexius High (Jonesboro, Ga.), Destinee Langford (Lexington, S.C.) and Kyra Wilson (Sumter, S.C.).
“I’m big on Mylea McKenith,” Pederson said. “I think she’s underappreciated across the league. [The freshmen] aren’t ready, but the depth is there. These are kids who will grow into it. We’re going to get good point guard play from Jessica and Mo, but they’re going to be freshmen. At the shooting guard position, Alexius High is a freshman whose got a huge upside. She’s just not ready yet. I tell Victoria Baldwin all the time that she’s the best practice shooter in the country. We just need her to become a good game shooter.”
While Johnson will get plenty of attention at the post for Lander, the Bearcats can also turn to sophomore Lea Petit (Duluth, Ga.), who was sidelined late last season with an injury. Fellow sophomore Ariel Sheares (Greensboro, N.C.) returns for her second year with the program, while incoming freshman Tabitha Dailey (Augusta, Ga.) and transfer Cameron Davis (Rock Hill, S.C.) will also battle for playing time.
“Last year [at forward], it was pretty much just Breshay Johnson, “said Pederson. “Now, there’s some depth there we haven’t had before.”
The arrival of 6-4 freshman center Jona’e Lee (Rex, Ga.) may give the Bearcats a height advantage on the boards, something Lander has not possessed in recent years.
“Jona’e gives us as much as size as we’ve had in the program since I’ve been here,” Pederson said. “We’re hoping and praying that we’re healthy. If we’re healthy, we’re going to have depth in January. It’s just going to be a lot of inexperience in November and December.”
Pederson also believes that the return of assistant coach DeCole Shoemate Robertson, who missed two months during the offseason on maternity leave, will benefit the program greatly.
“It’s huge,” said Pederson of Robertson’s return.” Boy, it was tough going without her. You can’t put into words what it means to have a staff together for six years. She’s adjusting to her new schedule, but I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know we’re going to war with her, because I know she’s going to give me everything she’s got. I say it all the time, she’s the best assistant coach in the Peach Belt.”
After capturing the Peach Belt Conference title last season, the bullseye will be squarely on the Bearcats in 2016-17. Lander was picked to repeat as champions in the preseason PBC coaches poll, garnering, seven first-place votes. Francis Marion was picked second, followed by Augusta, Columbus State, Clayton State, North Georgia, Armstrong State, Georgia College, Young Harris, USC Aiken, Flagler, UNC Pembroke, Georgia Southwestern and Montevallo.
The Bearcats have also received plenty of love from the national polls. Lander is ranked 17th nationally in the D2SIDA Women’s Basketball Division II Media Poll and the Division II Bulletin Preseason National Rankings, while sitting at 21st in the WBCA NCAA Division II Preseason Top 25 Coaches Poll.
“I love it,” Pederson said of the preseason polls. “I love that people think we’re going to be really good. I really think that’s more a reflection of our program. I tell our players all the time, ‘if the bullseye’s on our back, then we’re clearly in the right place. If you want to have success, this is the price that comes with it.’ You need to embrace high expectations.”
The Bearcats will be tested early in non-conference play. Following the PBC/SAC Challenge, Lander faces host Converse and Johnson C. Smith in the Courtyard Classic in Spartanburg, S.C. The Bearcats then travel to Warren Wilson before finally returning home to host rival Erskine on Dec. 1 in the home opener. A home game with against Carver Bible College is followed by a trip to perennial power Limestone before the Bearcats begin PBC play on the road at Montevallo and North Georgia. Lander faces Johnson C. Smith at home on Dec. 31 to conclude non-conference play.
Algon with trips to Montevallo and UNG, the Bearcats will face cross-divisional opponent Young Harris on the road. Clayton State, Georgia Southwestern, Columbus State and Georgia College all come to Greenwood. Lander will play home-and-homes against Flagler, UNC Pembroke, Armstrong State, USC Aiken, Francis Marion and Augusta.
“If we’re winning 14 or 15 games in the Peach Belt, it’s a successful season,” said Pederson. “We know how tough this leage is. Now, there’s a difference between a successful season and still being disappointed. We’re going to be sorely disapointed if we don’t get this team to the NCAA Tournament and take the step forward we’ve been unable to take the last two years. We’re going to have success in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a question of when. We’re trying to get our players fixated on getting there now, because that’s the road we want to be on.”