Lexington, Ky. – Coming off the best season in program history since entering the NCAA near the turn of the millennium, the Transylvania women's basketball team is ready to officially set sail for the 2019-20 season on Tuesday, November 12 at the Clive M. Beck Center with an in-state season opener against the Spalding University Eagles.
National expectations for the Pioneers are as high heading into this season as they were at the conclusion of the 2018-19 campaign. For the first time ever, Transylvania enters a season ranked in the top 25 of both nationally-acclaimed Top 25 preseason polls, checking in at No. 13 on the WBCA Top 25 poll and No. 16 by the D3Hoops.com Top 25 poll.
The unparalleled success of the 2018-19 Pioneers under the tutelage of Juli Fulks, who now enters her sixth season at the helm, has provided ample justification for the national attention which greets the Pioneers right off the tip.
Last year, Transylvania had a season to remember, amassing a 23-2 record in the regular season before finishing off the season 27-3 with their postseason exploits. The season culminated in the program's first trip to an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 round, setting the standard for women's basketball excellence in Lexington.
Though the Pioneers graduated five special seniors who provided everything from leadership to gritty defense to superior three-point shooting, Transylvania returns a sizable amount of depth among its starting five and its overall rotation in 2019-20.
As Transylvania aims for a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and fourth in the last seven years, a new team with many potential-laden individual pieces looks to establish its own new skin while drawing upon the recent championship lessons of past successes.
LAST SEASON: 27-3, 17-1 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
2018-19 was a landmark year for the Pioneers for many reasons, one of the brightest being their first-place finish atop the HCAC standings for the first time in four seasons.
After suffering their first conference loss of the season on December 8, 2018 at reigning conference champion Rose-Hulman, the Pioneers would not lose again in the regular season, winning their final 15 conference games and reeling off a program-record 22 straight wins before falling to eventual national champion Thomas More University in the Sectional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
The Pioneers overcame an early-season loss against Johns Hopkins in a topsy-turvy trip to Virginia while their other regular-season loss against Rose-Hulman served as a springboard for the rest of their season; the latter game became a galvanizing moment which led to the Pioneers beating Rose-Hulman twice more in 2018-19, first in the regular-season rematch at the Beck Center in January, then finally in the HCAC Tournament championship match in a thrilling 63-61 win on a Kristen Hayes layup with one second remaining.
The Pioneers continued their postseason success with a first-round victory against Piedmont in the NCAA Tournament and then a resounding 76-56 triumph over Oglethorpe in the following game, spurred by a 41 percent shooting night from the three-point line (12-for-29).
KEY LOSSES: Celia Kline, Sr., Guard, Kristen Hayes, Sr., Guard, Macey Ford, Sr., Guard
KEY RETURNEES: Shelby Boyle, Sr., guard (Morgantown, W. Va. / Morgantown HS), Ashton Woodard, Sr., wing (Mt Sterling, Ky. / Menifee County HS) Zenoviah Walker, Jr., point guard (Danville, Ky. / Danville HS), Elizabeth Hardiman, Jr., center (Winchester, Ky. / George Rogers Clark HS), Miranda Otero, Jr., center (Berea, Ohio / Berea-Midpark HS)
NEWCOMERS: Mary-Clare Megibben, Fr., forward (Shelbyville, Ky. / Martha Layne Collins HS), Laken Ball, Fr., forward (Beckley, W. Va. / Woodrow Wilson HS), Dasia Thornton, Fr., forward (Cincinnati, Ohio / Clark Montessori) Madison Kellione, Fr., guard (Cynthiana, Ky. / Harrison County HS)
The incoming Pioneer roster endured a visible share of losses due to graduation, a sizable supply of returning talent, and an equally prominent amount of incoming talent.
Gone from the 2018-19 squad is Celia Kline, the nation's leader in three-point shooting, who knocked down over 100 three-pointers at an astounding 48 percent clip. Kline and four other Pioneer seniors served as a foundational class which returned the Pioneers to the top of the HCAC, three conference tournament championship game appearances, and the deepest NCAA Tournament run the program has ever witnessed.
Back to lead the way for the Pioneers in 2019-20 is the heart of the lineup, a pair of seniors in Shelby Boyle and Ashton Woodard. The two returning All-HCAC First team selections from 2018-19 boast plenty of firepower between them. Boyle finished a sliver below Kline last season as the team's scoring leader with 14.2 ppg while Woodard averaged 13.3 points per game. Each player was just as dynamic from behind the arc with Boyle knocking down 67 threeballs at 42 percent while Woodard drained 39 three-pointers at a 38.2 percent figure.
With Kline vacating the starting point guard position, Zenoviah Walker figures to be a primary ballhandler for the Pioneers. Appearing in all 30 games and making 21 starts last season, Walker led the Pioneers in assists last season and stands out as one of the team's best two-way players.
Fulks' newest freshman class boasts a common theme of size and skill, with three of the seven newcomers standing at 5-11 or taller. Six players total on the Pioneers' roster stand at 5-11 or above, offering interior versatility to complement the plentiful scoring options on the perimeter and inward.
"We will continue to rely on the experience of Shelby, Ashton, and Novi while having several other players with the skill level to be very impactful," says Fulks. "An obvious strength this year when looking at our roster, is our size. We hope to have a commanding presence on the boards and on defense to take advantage of our height and strength."
NOTABLE GAMES: November 12 vs. Spalding, November 23 at Wittenberg, December 7 at Anderson, February 8, 2020 vs. Rose-Hulman, February 19, 2020 at Hanover
The Pioneers raise their Sweet 16 banner in the 2019-20 season opener on November 12 versus Spalding and offer their fans their first look at the Pioneer team of the future, including a new starting lineup, a Bluegrass opponent in Spalding, and the first chance to measure themselves up against official Division III competition.
The November 23rd trip to Wittenberg gives the Pioneers a chance to sharpen their national profile outside of HCAC play in a key regional showdown against Wittenberg, a rising power in the North Coast Athletic Conference.
The mid-February matchup with Rose-Hulman marks the first time that the teams will square off in the Beck Center since the thrilling finale to the 2019 HCAC Tournament, while the February 19 matchup at Hanover pits the two teams picked to finish 1 and 2 in the HCAC preseason coaches' poll. As teams in the HCAC joust for late-season playoff positioning, the matchup in Hanover could prove to be vital for both teams.
RETURN OF THE 3-BALL? The 2018-2019 season was both a historically successful season for the Pioneers and a visually appealing product to spectate. While the Pioneers were among the nation's leaders in three-point shooting, Kline was not the only flamethrower from beyond the arc as Boyle and Woodard made their long-distance contributions known throughout the year.
The Pioneers set records for single-game made threes with 18 at home versus Franklin on February 13, 2019, knocking down 18 of 38 attempts. Transylvania saved some three-point shooting for the postseason, splashing 12 of 29 three-point shots in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Oglethorpe. Transylvania had 18 games last season in which it connected on 10 or more three-pointers.
Though the graduation of Kline leaves a void in outside shooting volume, the veteran pedigree of Woodard and Boyle offer potential to make up the difference along with emerging pieces of the Pioneers.
As the Pioneers enter a new season, one challenge they'll encounter is discovering how a new offense with pieces from the past and present all blend together. Still, the exodus of Kline displays another angle of Transylvania's multilayered strengths from outside; Boyle returns to the scene as the leading three-point shooter in the conference by percentage this season.
"Celia had an incredible effect on the defense on every possession," reflects Fulks. "Whether or not she had the ball, teams were forced into respecting her incredibly offensive numbers from the three-point line. This year's team has many returners from that prolific attack and while it may not be at the same rate, I believe we have the ability to continue to be highly effective from the three-point line."
AN INTERIOR EMERGENCE: As the 2018-19 season continued, a pair of young building blocks emerged for the Pioneers. Then-sophomore Miranda Otero showed off her two-way ability with over 50 percent shooting from the field in the month of January and snaring 4.3 rebounds per game. On the other end of the court, Otero made life difficult for offensive players on the attack, racking up more than one block per game to finish second on the Pioneers in that category.
Fellow sophomore Elizabeth Hardiman joined Otero as a platooning force at the center position towards the stretch end of the season. Hardiman showed up in a big way for the Pioneers to begin the NCAA Tournament with a career-high 15 points in a 77-67 first-round win over Piedmont, nailing all six of her field goals in the game.
The evolving inside tandem also got a lift from Boyle, who further illustrated her all-around capabilities by leading the HCAC in blocks with 1.7 rejections per contest.
"Our presence inside is incredibly exciting between the returners and the freshmen," adds Fulks. "Our goal is to find ways to showcase their talent on both ends of the court and have the offensive and defensive boards feel overwhelming for the other team."
While the shape of the Pioneers may have a different exterior from last season, the versatility of this year's roster offers potential new dimensions for Fulks to toggle and unlock.
TUESDAY TIP-OFF: As the Pioneers get ready for opening night on Tuesday against the Spalding University Eagles, they'll take their first major step towards evaluating how far they've come during training camp and preseason, identifying some initial strengths, and receiving their first live look at how a combination of veterans and youth mesh together.
The season offers one last chance for veterans like Boyle and Woodard to take their games to their final levels, and newcomers and other returners to fill in areas of need and fulfill larger roles. While the Pioneers enter the year boasting arguably one of the most talented rosters in terms of individual skill sets, the Pioneers know that developing a new identity for the year to come will be a significant factor in determining their destiny.
"Last year's success was a combination of talent, leadership, and a team that loved to play together," adds Fulks. "I believe the biggest takeaway is the reminder of both authenticity and teamwork. Every team needs to find its own identity and group strengths. Last year's team was able to capitalize and the message this year is to follow the same formula of daily and progress and discover what we can grow into."
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