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The Tusculum University men’s basketball team will tip off its 2020-21 season this Saturday when they host Wingate University at Pioneer Arena for a South Atlantic Conference contest beginning at 4 p.m.

Coach JT Burton begins his third season at the helm of the TU program and has led the Pioneers to back-to-back winning seasons. Tusculum posted a 19-13 record last year and finished fourth in the league standings for a second straight season.

The recipe for success has been a suffocating defense that allowed 70.2 points per game (2nd in SAC) and possessed a knack for attacking the boards, especially on the offensive glass where TU led the country in offensive rebounds per game (15.9 rpg) in the 2019-20 campaign.

The Pioneers are also coming off a season where they advanced to the SAC Semifinal for the first time since 2011.

Gone are a trio of starters including three of the team’s top five scorers. But TU brings back its leader in scoring and assists in All-Conference guard Trenton Gibson and the Pioneers’ top rebounder and shot blocker in senior forward Brandon Mitchell.

Tusculum will be playing a 20-game slate this season, all conference contests.

“We are going right into battle from the very beginning,” Burton said. “Every game counts from day one, playing a 20-game South Atlantic Conference schedule and opening with a tough opponent in Wingate.

“Our team has navigated through fall camp well so far, including all the challenges coming with the pandemic. We will have our growing pains the veterans and new guys come together as a team. It’s going to be an exciting season.”

Gibson, a 6-4 junior from Murfreesboro, averaged a team-best 13.5 points per game (20th in SAC) and led TU in assists with 3.9 helpers per contest (7th in SAC). The 2019 SAC Freshman of the Year was also third on the roster in rebounding, pulling down 5.9 boards per game (16th in SAC). He scored in double figures in 24 of his 32 starts including last year’s season-opener where he recorded a triple-double of 17 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists against 2019 NCAA Tournament participant USC Aiken.

Gibson enters his third season with the Pioneers with 814 points, 352 rebounds and 229 assists to his credit. His .784 career free throw percentage is eighth in Tusculum history while his 3.75 career assists per game average is seventh in the TU record book.

Mitchell, a 6-9 product of Virginia Beach, Virginia, established a new TU single-season record with his 62 blocked shots last year, which were the most in the league and 12th-most in NCAA Division II. His 1.94 blocked shots per game average was second in the SAC and 23rd in the country. Mitchell also led the league in offensive rebounds per game (1.94 orpg — 12th in NCAA II) and his 7.8 boards per contest rate were most on the team and third in the conference. His 250 total rebounds were the sixth-most by Pioneer in a season to raise his career rebound tally to 501. In 2019-20, Mitchell also poured in 9.3 points per game and led the team with eight double-doubles. He finished the season shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 70 percent from the free throw line.

In his 85-game career, he has totaled 585 points and his 136 career blocked shots are the second-most in school history, 23 behind TU shot-block leader Brad Hawks (159 from 2001-2005). Mitchell enters this season averaging 5.89 rebounds per game for his career, which is the seventh best average in program history.

Sophomore forward Joshua Scott returns for the Pioneers after he garnered a spot on the SAC All-Freshman Team. In his 29 outings, he averaged 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. Scott, a 6-5 native of Pompano Beach, Florida, scored in double figures seven times and finished the season with 156 points, 81 rebounds and 18 steals.

Justin Mitchell appeared in 27 games with seven consecutive starts early in the season. The 6-5 Lexington, Kentucky sophomore forward averaged 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in his rookie year.

Junior Adrian Cohen played in 26 games last season where he totaled 37 points, 22 rebounds and 15 assists. The 6-5 Woodstock, Georgia product has appeared in 51 games for the Pioneers where he is averaging 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per contest.

Sophomore guard Zack Dixon totaled 54 points and 17 rebounds in his 22 appearances last season. He shined late in the year where he posted a season-best 17 points in Tusculum’s SAC Quarterfinal victory over Anderson.

Sophomore guard Keaston Brown (Lexington, Ky.) totaled 67 points, 35 rebounds and 27 assists in his 31 outings during his freshman season, while sophomore forward DyQuavis Wilkins, a 6-5 forward from Greenville, North Carolina, saw action in all 32 games and averaged 1.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per contest. Wilkins also finished the year shooting 72.2 percent from the charity stripe. Peter Mgbechi, a 6-10 center from Nigeria, saw action in seven games last year and is expected to see more playing time in 2020-21.

WOMEN

Tusculum’s women open defense of their SAC tournament championship against Wingate at 2 p.m. Saturday at Pioneer Arena. It’s a rematch of last year’s SAC championship tournament quarterfinal that the Pioneers won 82-40.

Even with the departure of three 1,000-point scorers to graduation and the team’s coach to a conference rival, optimism is rampant as Tusculum embarks on an abbreviated 21-game schedule in 2020-21. The Pioneers will play a 20-game conference schedule.

First-year coach Meagan Price has assembled a roster filled with returning contributors and several newcomers, and is ready to take on the challenge of defending the Pioneers’ first SAC championship since 2011.

“The biggest thing for us is going to be executing offensively while being solid defensively,” said Price, who won 38 games in two seasons at Hiwassee College in her previous head-coaching stint from 2016-18. “Our returning players are going to have bigger roles than they had last year. Their expectations will be different, and the standards will be higher.”

Price was hired at Tusculum in May to replace Devan Carter, who left for SAC rival Lincoln Memorial after leading the Pioneers to 79 wins in five seasons, including a 24-7 mark in 2019-20.

Tusculum’s 24 victories last season were its most since winning 26 games in 2008-09, and the SAC tournament title was its first since 2011.

Senior post player Maddie Sutton and senior guard Jalia Arnwine are among 10 returnees from a year ago, when the Pioneers went 16-6 in the SAC and finished in third place before beating Wingate, Carson-Newman and Anderson to claim the third SAC tournament title in school history.

Sutton started all 31 games last season and led the Pioneers with 8.3 rebounds per game, ranking her fifth in the conference on the boards. The Walland native chipped in with 9.0 points per game and paced the squad with eight double-doubles, including three in a row in mid-February. The 6-foot Sutton reached double figures in scoring 17 times as a junior and had 13 games with double digits on the glass.

Arnwine averaged a career-high 7.8 points per game while starting 30 games a year ago. She led the team with 51 3-pointers and was 12th in the SAC in 3-pointers per game at 1.6. The 5-6 Knoxville native brings a streak of 20 consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer into her senior season, and is one shy of becoming the 11th player in program history to hit 100 threes in a career.

Senior guard Brianna Dixon joined the Pioneer program last season after two years at Walters State and appeared in all 31 games. The 6-footer from Decatur, Georgia, moved into the starting lineup late in the year and averaged 2.2 steals per game in her nine starts.

Senior guard Aliyah Miller contributed 6.3 points per game primarily in a bench role last season, after two years at Vol State. The 5-7 native of Clarksville finished in double figures five times, including 25 in a win over Mars Hill on Jan. 8 in which she went 6-for-9 from 3-point range.

Also returning as part of the senior class for the Pioneers are guards Elle Hutchinson and Katelyn Weems. Hutchinson transferred to Tusculum from Young Harris prior to last season, and the 5-8 native of Cairns, Australia, averaged 4.4 points and 1.4 rebounds per game in 27 contests. Weems rejoins the program this season after appearing in five games during the 2018-19 season, and after two seasons with the Tusculum beach volleyball team. The 5-7 North Greene High School graduate played two seasons at UNC Wilmington (2016-18) before returning home.

Returning as underclassmen for the Pioneers are junior guards Marta Rodrigues and Mya Belton, along with sophomore guard Kirsten Click.

Rodrigues, who is preparing to run the point for the Pioneers this season after coming off the bench in 16 games last season. She scored a season-high 10 points against Johnson & Wales on Nov. 22. The 5-6 native of Lisbon, Portugal, is averaging 2.3 points and 1.2 assists in 42 career games for the Pioneers.

Belton had a solid second half of the season for the Pioneers in 2019-20, enabling her to finish the year averaging 4.7 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in 26 contests. The 5-10 native of Blythewood, South Carolina, knocked down 24 3-pointers last season and reached double figures in SAC Tournament wins over Wingate (13 points) and Carson-Newman (14 points). Belton is averaging 4.4 points per game with 41 3-pointers in 48 career contests.

Click cracked the starting lineup late in the regular season and ended up appearing in 21 contests as a freshman. The 5-8 native of Amelia, Ohio, started seven games and finished the year averaging 2.9 points per game, while connecting on 18 3-pointers.

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