published Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Tennessee Wesleyan feels good about national opener

Tennessee Wesleyan College is at the NAIA Division II women’s basketball national tournament for the fourth time in five years, and the Lady Bulldogs won a game in the event in 2011.

Coach Jeff Rice and his players think today is a good chance for another victory at Sioux City, Iowa, although 17th-ranked Wesleyan’s opening foe at 2:45 EST is No. 16 Siena Heights from Michigan.

“Siena Heights is really athletic. They’re kind of a cross between Milligan and Union [College] in our conference,” Rice said Monday by phone from Iowa. “They’re big on the perimeter like Milligan and have size inside like Union. And they’re from a good league. They’ll be a tough matchup, but last year was their first year here and they haven’t won here.

“We haven’t had a lot of success here, either, but we’ve been here a lot and we’ve been really competitive, and this team is right up there with that [2011] team that was ranked eighth in the county and won a game here. The chemistry is very good, and we’re second in the country in points given up per game (55.1).”

The 2010-11 Lady Bulldogs wound up 30-4, and this year’s group is 24-4 — 18-1 since Christmas, losing only in the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament semifinals after earning a trip to Sioux City by winning the regular-season title. Milligan is the team that ended TWC’s streak, and then Union topped the Lady Buffs in the tournament final and is at Sioux City also.

Rice said the Lady Bulldogs “hadn’t been tuned in” since clinching the regular-season title, so the loss seemed to help them refocus.

“Spring break was last week, so we gave them some time off and then had three or four days of really good practices,” he said. “I really expect them to play well. We’re looking to come out here and win some games and not just be happy to be here.”

Rice’s team combines versatility and experience on the perimeter with multiple post options, Oak Ridge’s Armeka Booker having joined senior Cody Houck inside as a junior transfer from Mars Hill. Booker was the AAC player of the year with 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and two blocked shots a game, and Houck averaged 13.0 points and 8.6 rebounds and was the team’s all-tournament representative.

Junior Shira Buley, who played at Knoxville West High School, came from Austin Peay and took over at point guard, averaging 9.2 points and 5.7 assists. Senior Courtney Gobble and redshirt junior Alli Moreland from Walker Valley start on the wings with senior Bailey Lyness from Red Bank backing them up, and Gobble slides over to point when Buley gets a break.

“I feel we have the ability to compete up here, and I feel like we have the want and desire,” Gobble said. “That was a tough loss to Milligan, but I think in the long run it might have been good for us. I’ve been here three times, but this one has a lot more meaning because this is my last year.”

And the team didn’t make it in 2013.

“It’s a lot different this year,” Lyness said. “I feel this is the best team I’ve been on in my four years. We’re so close, and we’ve got even closer as the season has gone on. We hang out together, and there hasn’t been any drama whatsoever. It’s been a blessing.

“Adding Armeka and Shira has been great for us. Obviously Armeka was the best player in the AAC, and Shira has added a whole different aspect to our team. And if one of our girls is off, another girl takes up the slack. The thing we always say is we don’t want to let each other down.”

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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