DAHLONEGA, Ga. – The North Georgia College & State University women's basketball program has enjoyed its share of success over the years, there are plenty of banners hanging in Memorial Hall Gymnasium dedicated to the rich history of the program that point to that fact.
But the 2012-13 edition of the team is hoping to make some history of its own this year while adding to that tradition of winning.
Head coach Buffie Burson has been at the helm of the program for 18 years and helped raise many of those banners while collecting 369 victories and 10 seasons with 23 or more wins including a stretch of three seasons where her teams claimed 30 or more victories. Coach Burson knows the recipe for success and believes she has a team that can compete in one of the toughest conferences in all of NCAA Division II – the Peach Belt Conference.
"Our main goals are to compete for a conference championship and compete in NCAA post-season year-in and year-out," stated Burson. "In order to do so, our team will need to gain experience early on in non-conference play and build on that experience and be ready every night in the competitive PBC. We are working hard on finding the right combinations of players who are willing to work hard, accept roles for the betterment of the team and get our team to the next level."
Last season's team went 12-14 and just missed out on post-season play after going 1-4 over the final five games of the season. The 2011-12 Saints went 5-5 away from their home court and were 7-9 in front of the home crowd, but that has little to do with this year's squad.
This season, five players return and that includes just one senior. And while the rest of the team is young, they are also extremely talented after seeing quality minutes that forced them to grow up fast last season.
"We are excited about this group's versatility," Burson said. We have (Jaymee) Carnes and (Mimi) Hill who are 6-1 and 6-3 who can consistently drain a three-pointer as well as score in the paint and we have a well-rounded perimeter attack. We can put a group on the floor who can push the pace and and in contrast we can put a group on the floor who thrive more in a controlled setting. It's a good feeling to have options."
Possibly the biggest returning factor for North Georgia this season is junior Jaymee Carnes who took the conference and nation by storm last season. Carnes set school and conference records on her way to being named the 2012 Daktronics National Player of the Year, PBC Player of the Year and Southeast Region Player of the Year and is already adding to her résumé this season as she was named a Preseason All-American by the D2 National Bulletin.
The Gainesville, Ga. native led the 2011-12 Saints and nation with 20 double-doubles and averaged 25.0 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. Her 25.0 points per game led the nation as she finished the season with 624 total points, the tenth-most points in a single season in Peach Belt history. She also finished second in the league and 15th in the nation in rebounds per game and ranked eighth-nationally in blocks.
She set school records for total points, scoring average and free throws made (180) and also holds the school's NCAA Division II era records for most points (40), blocks (9) and field goals made (16) in a single game.
But one player does not make a team, and it can be overwhelming for a single player to try to carry a team all season. Carnes does not have to worry about that as all around her are playmakers waiting for their chance to help carry the load; players like sophomore guard Stephanie Huffman who played in all 26 games a season ago as a true freshman.
A native of Woodstock, Ga., Huffman averaged 10.0 points and 3.2 assists per game last season and boasted the second-highest field goal percentage on the team as she drained 43.9 percent of her looks from the field. She led the team with 83 assists and 962 minutes of action and was second on the team with 163 rebounds and third with 27 steals.
The three remaining returners for the Saints are Jasmine Manning, Crystal Moore and Giovanni Sims. The trio accounted for over 1,400 minutes of action last season and all three played in nearly every game.
Manning was a 35.8 percent shooter last season and brought down 69 boards while Moore made 38 shots and corralled in 97 rebounds. Moore also swatted away seven shots and was third on the team with 26 take-aways.
Like Huffman, Sims was a true freshman last season who grew up fast as she worked her way into 26 games. She hit on 40.5 percent of her shots, brought down 151 rebounds and also accounted for 39 assists, 24 steals and nine blocks.
"We expect Jaymee to pick up where she left off last year," Coach Burson stated. "She had to carry a huge load, however, we believe this year we have players around her who compliment her game. We also believe Stephanie will continue her strong play. She has a quality year under her belt and returns as one of our strongest rebounders and scorers. Giovanni and Crystal will play big roles as they are both versatile players. With consistency from these two great athletes our team's depth could be immense and Jasmine should also add solid depth to our post game."
Coach Burson has added some more weapons to her arsenal for the coming year with a junior, two sophomores and five freshmen coming into the fold including two Division I transfers.
Mimi Hill, who comes from a family of talented players, highlights the newcomers as she comes over from NCAA Division I school Western Kentucky University. Her mother, 1987 All-American Brenda Hill-Gilmore, was a standout at North Georgia from 1985-87 and still holds the single-game school record of 10 blocks. Her sister, Tasha Humphrey, was an All-American at the University of Georgia and went on to be a standout in the WNBA.
The other two transfers are sophomores Mikalyn DeFoor and Kateca Favors. DeFoor played at PBC rival Georgia College last season, starting 16 games and averaging 25 minutes a game for the Bobcats while Favors redshirted at Division I school Lipscomb University.
To top off the roster, Burson has brought in five freshmen guards, and all five will compete immediately for playing time.
"We brought in a lot of players who we expect to contribute in some fashion every game," said Burson. "Mimi and Kateca are both Division I transfers who should make an immediate impact in our post game while freshmen point guards Cierra Jackson and Molly Rainwater have looked great early. Both are fierce competitors and bring different looks to the team. Gaurds Mikalyn DeFoor, Keeley Chester and Gabby Arencibia fit our offense perfectly. All of our new players bring a lot of energy and a strong will to win."
The Saints will kick-off their season of 26 dates with their own Lady Saints Tip-Off Classic Nov. 16 through Nov. 17 playing Carson-Newman and the University of West Florida. From there, it will be a tough road, quite literally, with seven-straight games on the road that include opening PBC play away from home. North Georgia will not play at home again until the 2013 calendar year.
"We are looking forward to playing Carson-Newman because it's our first game of the year," stated Burson. "We have a bright, young team and every game we play early on will be a stepping stone for conference play. We will hit the road for seven-straight games and we will definitely be tested and be able to see what we are made of early. The non-conference schedule was designed to get us where we need to be for the PBC run. It is hard to specify any particular match-up when every game has significant importance, but we look forward to all the games ahead."
If seven-straight road games in November and December was not enough, three teams on the slate are ranked in the Women's Division II Bulletin Preseason Top-25 Poll and four advanced to the NCAA Division II National Tournament last season including Lander University which advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. The University of South Carolina Aiken (No. 6) and the Lakers of Clayton State University (No. 11) are ranked along with Lander (No. 25) in the preseason poll while Florida Southern, USC Aiken and Clayton State also made appearances in the big dance a season ago.
The Saints will play two of their toughtest opponents from the PBC East, USC Aiken and Lander, at home along with Augusta State, but they will also have to go to Armstrong Atlantic State, Flagler and UNC Pembroke and, as Coach Burson stated, they cannot look over any team in the league.
With all the young talent on the team, Coach Burson knows there will be growing pains, but is optimistic the team will grow fast and come together to put something special on the court every night.