BY ADAM GREENE
With two victories over Top 25 competition and a looming South Atlantic Conference Schedule on the horizon, a break might just be what the Tusculum College women's basketball team needs.
But before they can take their two-week winter vacation, they'll welcome another NCAA Division II Tournament mainstay to Pioneer Arena. The Pioneers (6-2) host Johnson C. Smith University (4-5) tonight with tip off scheduled for 6 p.m.
"They're a balanced squad," Tusculum coach Katrina Williams said of the Golden Bulls. "They don't have one or two kids that will score 30. They're well-coached and they play the game the right way. They're fundamental and do a good job executing offensively and are good on defense as well."
What JCS hasn't been able to do so far is beat a SAC team. The Golden Bulls have had two chances coming into tonight, falling 60-46 to Lenoir-Rhyne and 73-65 at Catawba.
With Tusculum already notching a 3-1 record against non-conference 2012 NCAA tournament teams this season, the SAC is on the rise and Williams feels it's for good reason.
"I think we have one of the toughest conferences in the country and top-to-bottom anybody can beat anybody on any given night," Williams said. "If you just see what the teams in our league are doing, it says a lot about how competitive the conference is."
Tonight's game will be the first for the Pioneer women in 18 days. On Dec. 11 Tusculum put a 78-58 beat down on the defending national champions, No. 18-ranked Shaw. Of their two losses this season, only one, a 57-34 defeat by Winston-Salem State, has been against a Division II opponent.
"We certainly can't overlook Johnson C. Smith," Williams said. "We've had a couple of good days of practice. The girls seem focused. They're excited about the holidays, but they're also excited about the opportunity to go in the break with a win."
Senior guard Kendal Baxter leads the team with 17.4 points per game. More impressive, Baxter leads the entire nation in three-pointers per game, averaging 4.25.
Williams is getting solid production out of her next four leading scorers. Jama Hammontree, April McCann, Breaira Barskdale and Alishia Mosley are all averaging over eight points a game.
With the impressive wins over big-time competition comes national attention. The Pioneers have been hovering right outside the Top 25 for weeks and a win over Johnson C. Smith going into the hiatus might just land them a ranking.
"We haven't even talked about it as a team," Williams said. "We don't want it to be a distraction. Ultimately it doesn't matter where we're ranked or where we're picked. It's how we finish."
Tusculum's front-loaded schedule should help it not only in the regional rankings, but in an improved SAC. The Pioneers get into the meat of their conference schedule when they return from the break with a Jan. 5 contest at Wingate (5-4, 01 SAC). Tusculum returns home to Pioneer Arena on Jan. 9 to face arch rival Carson-Newman (6-2, 1-1).
"It's a good measuring tool for us to see where we are at this point in time," Williams said. "But it doesn't determine what's going to happen from this point on. It's great for us to beat these quality teams to get ready for conference play."