BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The Union women's basketball team returns a lot of experience and has added a lot of youth and talent in the hopes of capturing the Appalachian Athletic Conference championship and returning to the national tournament.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 21-10 overall record and 12-6 conference mark. Union advanced to the tournament title game but fell to Reinhardt (Ga.), preventing the Bulldogs from a second consecutive trip to NAIA National Championship Tournament.
Union opens the 2013-14 season tonight when it plays host to Asbury (Ky.) at 7:30 p.m.
While it brings back three starters plus another who started 11 games, Union has to replace a two-time NAIA All-American in Lindsey Waters and a three-year starter in Laura Perkins. Waters, a two-time AAC Player of the Year, averaged 16.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game to go with a school-record 92 blocks. Perkins dished out 53 assists and averaged 5.1 points.
However, replacing Waters could help make the Bulldogs a deeper and potentially a stronger team.
"We have the ability to play a little deeper than we have been because we don't have the all-American player in the lane you'll leave in there for 34-35 minutes a game," said Union coach Tim Curry. In his 13th season, Curry is 230-156 as the Bulldogs coach. He boast a 322-268 career record. "We can split those minutes up more."
In all, the Bulldogs look to have the ability to run 10-11 players deep this season, and it begins with the four returning starters.
Leading the pack is senior guard Amber Taylor, who is the team's top returning scorer at 11.1 points per game. She also dished out 118 assists, had 65 steals and averaged 3.9 rebounds. Taylor was nearly automatically at the foul line with an 84.3 free-throw percentage, ranking her 12th in NAIA Division II. She turned a solid performance during the AAC Tournament, averaging 21.3 points per game in collecting All-Tournament Team honors.
Union also returns Haley Perkins, who was the AAC Freshman of the Year in 2012-13. Starting all 31 games last season, Perkins averaged 10.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game to go with 71 steals, 54 assists and 23 blocks. She made the All-AAC Third Team as well.
Back for her senior season is guard Alyson Roberts, who posted 6.7 points and 3.3 rebounds last season along with 61 assists and 33 steals.
Sophomore Lydia Nash started 11 of the 31 games she played in, averaging 9.0 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. Named to the AAC All-Freshman Team, Nash had the best single-game performance by a Bulldog last season as she went 15-of-16 from the field in scoring a team-best 36 points against St. Andrews (N.C.).
In all, Union has a solid core returning in its senior and sophomore classes.
"With our senior class, we've got a lot of veterans," said Curry, "and we'll look to them for leadership. And our sophomores are a strong group with great experience already."
In addition to Taylor and Roberts, Marah Rice is also a senior who's played integral roles for Union over the years. Rice started one game out of the 30 she appeared in last season, averaging 2.5 points per game.
The sophomore class is packed with talent. After Perkins and Nash, Macy Clontz helped out with 3.4 points per game as she averaged nearly 13 minutes a game. Adreana Jefferson saw almost 10 minutes of action a night last season and contributed 1.6 points and 2.0 rebounds per contest.
Taylor will be tasked with the job of running the show as the point guard. In 70 career games, Taylor has shown to be a dual threat with 719 career points and 267 career assists. She is also solid defensively with 130 career steals.
"Amber has the ability to be as good as any point we'll see this season," said Curry.
Roberts could also see time running the point as well as freshman Reagan King, who could play any of the three perimeter positions.
For the most part, Roberts will be the No. 2 guard. Of her 203 career field goals made, 141 are 3-pointers as she owns a career 35.0 shooting percentage from behind the arc. Freshman Jenna Mills could also see plenty of time as the shooting guard.
Perkins is the leading candidate to start at the No. 3 position for the Bulldogs, but the versatile 5-foot-10 sophomore could see time as the shooting guard and at the power forward slot. Perkins has the ability to drive the lane but also 36-of-98 (36.7 percent) 3-pointers last season.
"As good as she was last season, Haley has only gotten better," the Bulldog coach said.
Nash will occupy the post, while Jefferson start at center.
"Lydia played well for us last season when Waters was out with her injury," Curry said. "AJ (Jefferson) is our best defender and has really improved her offense. She's becoming a well-rounded ballplayer."
Helping out at the 3-, 4- and 5-positions will be Aaliyah Lumson, a 5-foot-10 freshman.
Clontz and junior Sarah Scruggs will see minutes on the perimeter and at the No. 4 position. Scruggs saw limited action last year averaged 1.4 points per game and shot 35.0 percent (7-of-20) from 3-point range.
As always, the road to an AAC championship will not be an easy one. The Bulldogs are picked to finish third behind co-favorites Tennessee Wesleyan and Milligan (Tenn.). All three teams are ranked in the top 35 in the NAIA with Milligan leading the way at No. 19.
"With three teams in the top 35 and another (Reinhardt) who played in the national tournament, it's not going to be easy to win this league," said Curry. "There are 5-7 teams who could come out on top.
"The league is really strong," he added, "and it's going to be a challenge to play well every night to put ourselves in contention."
With the addition of Truett-McConnell, there are now 11 teams in the AAC. Because of the growth, the 20-game conference schedule gets underway early this season as Union will play at Milligan on Nov. 12.
"We don't have a lot of time to get ready, so we are going to have to at the top of our game early on," said Curry.
The 2014 AAC Tournament is set for Feb. 26-March 1 at the MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center in Kingsport, Tenn.