Following the best season in the program’s 14-year NCAA history, the University of North Georgia women’s basketball team will take aim at a third straight Peach Belt Conference championship and another deep postseason run in 2019-20.
The Nighthawks, who reached the NCAA Division II Elite Eight as the Southeast Regional champions and finished 30-5 in 2018-19, will have a unique tune-up for the season as they play an exhibition game Nov. 1 at the University of South Carolina.
The Gamecocks won the 2017 Division I national championship and have totaled at least 25 victories each of the past eight seasons under head coach Dawn Staley, a run that includes a trio of 30-win seasons.
“We can learn a lot from that. It’s a great measuring stick. We’re going to play the best in the nation early,” North Georgia women’s basketball head coach Buffie Burson said. “It’s always good to see right where you are and get back to work.”
UNG returns two starters: junior forward Julianne Sutton, the 2019 NCAA Division II Southeast Regional tournament Most Outstanding Player, and junior guard Abbie Franklin, an All-PBC Tournament performer. Sutton, a Flowery Branch High School graduate, averaged 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. Franklin, a Jefferson High School graduate, tallied 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game to go along with a team-high 109 assists.
Forward Kyra Davis transferred in from Division I Campbell University, while forward Deja Mitchell is a transfer from Georgia State University. Davis and Mitchell each have two years of eligibility left. UNG also brings in four freshmen.
With eight returning players, Burson knows she has a foundation for success in her 26th season at the helm of North Georgia’s program. She has 523 career victories at UNG, with a combined record of 59-10 over the past two seasons. Each of those teams finished with a 19-3 league regular-season record.
“They know what the standard and expectation is, and so they’re chasing that,” Burson said. “But they’re also learning that it takes a lot of hard work to get there.”
Meanwhile, first-year men’s basketball head coach Dan Evans has seven seniors on his team: Zez Steeple, Roderick English, Tyler Dean, Ephraim Tshimanga, Zach Cottrell, Lanre Olatunji, and Carrod Watson. Steeple is the top returning scorer at 14.3 points per game and finished second on the team with 80 assists in 2018-19. Tshimanga averaged 11.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while dishing out a team-high 146 assists and recording a team-high 72 steals.
“Our players have bought in and have worked their hardest to try do the things we expect them to do on and off the floor,” Evans said. “We continue to see growth every day in our ability to do those things consistently.”
Evans, who was head coach at Ohio Dominican University the previous six seasons, said his team hopes to use defense to fuel a fast-paced offense. His final two teams at Ohio Dominican combined to go 37-22, which included a 2018 NCAA Division II tournament appearance.
“We will always be a blue-collar, hard-working team,” Evans said. “We will always put forth an incredible effort.”
The women’s basketball team opens the regular season at 6 p.m. Nov. 8 at Emmanuel College, and the men’s team starts the season against North Greenville at 2 p.m. Nov. 8 in Due West, South Carolina.