BY ADAM GREENE
A new era will begin tonight at Pioneer Arena. New Tusculum College women's basketball coach Katrina Williams will make her home debut as the Pioneers host Winston-Salem State at 6 p.m.
Williams will have a familiar cast with her from last season's 17-11 NCAA Division II tournament squad. Only three new players will take the floor for Tusculum, and only two of them freshmen. Named the new women's coach on June 5, Williams didn't have a lot of time to recruit. Still, she was able to bring in freshmen Kristen McMillion from Fayetteville, N.C. and Shynese Whitener from Newton, N.C. Williams also added UNC-Asheville transfer Breaira Barksdale to the roster and it's already paid dividends. Barksdale scored 13 points in a season-opening loss to Division 1 Furman. The Pioneers lost 68-49 to the Paladins, but Williams liked a lot of what she saw in her core group.
"We felt like we played well for 30 of the 40 minutes," Williams said "But they were bigger and stronger than us. That's what you expect when you play a team at that level. We saw a lot of promising spots."
The most promising spot of all is probably Williams' most experienced starter, senior Kendal Baxter. After Tusculum went down 7-0 to open the game, Baxter unleashed one of her long-distance threes, eventually scoring the first 10 points for the Pioneers.
"A good shot for Kendal is not necessarily a good shot for everyone else," Williams said of Baxter's penchant for putting up shots well behind the three-point line. "It is different. I'm not sure I realized how different it was until I saw how deep she could shoot it. In our scrimmages, she's caught it two-three feet behind the three-point line and if she's open, it's going up. And I feel good about it."
Baxter, who currently sits at No. 2 on the school's all-time three-pointers list, feels just as good about her new coach and teammates.
"She (Williams) is tough and pushes us hard," Baxter said. "That's exactly what you need out of a coach. You want to build on a solid foundation so we keep improving throughout the season. We have five seniors that can start at any time. We always have experience on the floor. The freshmen have shown they have a lot of talent and very athletic."
Williams took over the Tusculum women's program in June after Adell Harris left the month before for the head coaching job at D-I UNC-Wilmington. In Harris' three seasons, the Pioneers made three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, won two South Atlantic Conference tournament titles and made one trip to the Elite Eight.
Before Harris, Missy Tiber took Tusculum to the NCAA tournament twice in her four years and won two conference championships with back-to-back 26-win seasons. Tiber left in 2009 to take over the D-I Southern Illinois program.
Needless to say, the head women's basketball coaching position at Tusculum comes with a lot of prestige, and sky-high expectations.
"We understand that we're stepping into a situation that's pretty successful and we're excited about the challenge," Williams said. "We want to keep the tradition and do something special. It's up to us to continue to recruit players, get them in the program and keep it going."