CONWAY -- Last season was a deviation from what was becoming the norm for the University of Central Arkansas women's basketball team.
The Sugar Bears found themselves going through a down year in 2018-19. After three consecutive seasons of at least 25 victories, including one regular season Southland Conference championship, two conference tournament titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances, UCA limped to a 12-18 overall mark and 6-12 record in league play, finishing eighth in the Southland. The Sugar Bears lost to Abilene Christian in the second round of the league tournament.
At a glance
Central Arkansas women’s basketball schedule
All times Central
Nov. 7;at Tennessee;6 p.m.
Nov. 12;Hendrix College;7 p.m.
Nov. 16;at UALR;2 p.m.
Nov. 22;at Tulane;12 p.m.
Nov. 25;at Northern Kentucky;10 a.m.
Nov. 30;Jackson State;1 p.m.
Dec. 4;at Texas A&M;11 a.m.
Dec. 7;Crowley’s Ridge College;1 p.m.
Dec. 15;Central Baptist College;3 p.m.
Dec. 18;at Incarnate Word*;6:30 p.m.
Dec. 21;at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi*;1 p.m.
Jan. 1;Houston Baptist*;1 p.m.
Jan. 4;at McNeese State*;1 p.m.
Jan. 8;New Orleans*;7 p.m.
Jan. 11;Sam Houston State*;1 p.m.
Jan. 15;at Stephen F. Austin*;6:30 p.m.
Jan. 18;at Nicholls State*;1 p.m.
Jan. 25;Abilene Christian*;1 p.m.
Jan. 29;at Southeastern Louisiana*;7 p.m.
Feb. 1;at Northwestern (La.) State*;1 p.m.
Feb. 5;Lamar*;7 p.m.
Feb. 8;McNeese State*;1 p.m.
Feb. 12;at New Orleans*;7 p.m.
Feb. 15;at Sam Houston State*;1 p.m.
Feb. 19;Stephen F. Austin*;7 p.m.
Feb. 22;Nicholls State*;1 p.m.
Feb. 29;at Abilene Christian*;1 p.m.
Mar. 4;Southeastern Louisiana*;7 p.m.
Mar. 7;Northwestern (La.) State*;1 p.m.
*Southland Conference game
"I won't forget it. First losing season in a long time," said UCA Coach Sandra Rushing, who's entering her eighth season in Conway. "However, programs go through that. I'm still the same coach that I was when we won two championships.
"It's always humbling. You appreciate the wins and the championships that you've had. But again, athletics is such up and down. You're one injury away from a losing season. That happens, and we really had some key players last year that were injured."
Junior forward Hannah Langhi said, "We have to make a name for ourselves because last year was so bad. It was almost embarrassing just like how it ended up. So it's just like we have a point to prove."
Among last season's key injuries were guard Taylor Sells, who broke her foot and missed the final 10 games.
Sells is one of just five returning players this season. Four of the Sugar Bears' seven newcomers are junior college transfers, including twin sisters.
Junior guard/forward Briana Trigg and junior forward Ayanna Trigg transferred to UCA after playing two seasons at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where they were part of teams that went a combined 65-5 the last two years. The duo played in high school at Dover (Fla.) Strawberry Crest.
Junior guard Savanna Walker and sophomore guard Romola Dominguez are the other transfers. Walker played at East Georgia State College in Swainsboro, Ga., and Dominguez played a year at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas.
Rushing believes the four transfers have helped breathe new life into this team heading into the season.
"These transfers love being a part of this program, and they're very enthusiastic about it. That breeds energy," Rushing said. "They want to win. They're from winning programs. They know how to win. That was one of the things I wanted to do is go after people that's been in winning programs, and I think you win with people."
So how do the Sugar Bears get back to their winning ways this season?
Rushing's biggest points of emphasis in the preseason have been building mental toughness and improving on the defensive end, areas that she feels the Sugar Bears could have been much better in last season.
"She's definitely a [defense first] team. Everything's always defense, defense, defense," Langhi said. "We have a lot of new people, so we've really been trying to help them out with positioning and stuff like that. She's a fundamental coach."
Finding some more offensive firepower is another requirement. UCA ranked 10th in the league last season in scoring offense, averaging 61.5 points per game.
UCA lost its leading scorer and best player in guard Kamry Orr, who averaged 16 points per game -- which ranked third in the Southland -- as well as 4.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.6 steals.
"You don't replace a Kamry Orr," said Rushing, who believes multiple players will have to replicate her scoring output "by committee."
But UCA does return key players like Sells, Langhi and sophomore guard/forward Alana Canady. Sells was the team's second-leading scorer last season, averaging 7 points per game to go along with 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Langhi was third on the team in scoring, averaging 6.8 points, as well as 4.5 rebounds, and Canady was fifth in scoring, averaging 6.6 points.
Sophomore guards Carley Hudspeth and Shay Johnson also provide returning experience.
The biggest question is if this young UCA team, which has seven underclassmen and only one senior in Sells, can develop enough over the course of the season to rebound from last year.
The Sugar Bears open the season with a mammoth test at Tennessee on Thursday night in Knoxville.
"I'm excited to see how this team's gonna grow and mature and where we're gonna be in March," Rushing said. "And I know where we want to be. I know where the players want to be."
Sports on 11/01/2019
Print Headline: Sugar Bears look for a rebound