The University of Central Arkansas women's basketball team is about to endure a tough start.
"We're jumping in with both feet," UCA Coach Sandra Rushing said.
The Sugar Bears, coming off consecutive losing seasons, are scheduled to open the 2020-21 season Nov. 25 at Waco, Texas, against 2019 national champion Baylor.
Baylor is 340-25 with two national championships since the beginning of the 2010-11 season.
"It's going to be good for us to experience this," Rushing said. "Maybe not for me."
It's not the only severe test for the Sugar Bears during an eight-game nonconference schedule leading up to the start of the Southland Conference season Jan. 2. UCA also travels to TCU, Arkansas and Mississippi State, and plays intrastate rivals the Univeristy of Arkansas at Little Rock and Universit of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Rushing said UCA had to scramble to fill its nonconference schedule with the uncertainty surrounding the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"This is not the ideal schedule," she said. "The Baylor game is not going to be a good measuring tool. The positive thing, we're getting to play. This gives our kids a chance to play on the big stage."
UCA will do it with a team consisting of seven players who appeared in 26 or more games a year ago, a few second-year players and a handful of transfers Rushing said will make an immediate impact for a program looking to get back to where it was three seasons ago -- atop the Southland Conference.
The group of newcomers starts with 5-7 guard Tori Lasker, a transfer from UALR who received a waiver to gain immediate eligibility after announcing she was going to the Sugar Bears in August.
Rushing said she is expecting Lasker, who made 148 three-pointers and handed out 275 assists in three seasons at UALR, to start in the backcourt.
"Tori brings some things that are much needed for us," Rushing said. "She's quick, and she plays defense."
Lasker's likely running mate will be Savanna Walker, who averaged 4.5 points in 27 games as a junior-college transfer.
"Savanna is a completely different player than she was a year ago," Rushing said.
Rushing said she is counting on additional help from 6-1 junior-college transfer Lucy Ibeh and returning sophomore Terri Crawford, who averaged 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds in 26 games a year ago.
"She's just a beast," Rushing said of Crawford, "I like her physicality, the way she runs the floor, her athleticism."
Rushing said she is hopeful that Crawford and Ibeh will team to spark the Sugar Bears inside.
"Quick first step," Rushing said of Ibeh. "Tremendous athlete."
Other notable additions include true freshman forwards Ruth Balogun (Chattanooga, Tenn.) and Jayla Cody (Valdosta, Ga.).
"I'm looking forward to watch their careers progress at UCA," Rushing said.
Rushing said that the newcomers will help form a rotation of 10 players, along with the seven returning players, who averaged between 13.0 and 30.2 minutes per game.
"Somebody's got to step out of being a role player," Rushing said.
Any one of several second-year players is capable of blossoming now that they know what is expected of them.
"They're more familiar with my philosophy and my demands," Rushing said. "Got to know what's acceptable and not acceptable."
What's not acceptable to Rushing (537-350 in 31 years as a college coach) is the mediocrity of the past two seasons, after a run of three seasons with 25 or more victories and two appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
It's possible that the seven returning players who saw time last season, by default Rushing said, won't see as much this time around.
"We want to get back to where we were," Rushing said. "I'm excited about this team. We have more depth. This team competes more than we did last year."
Sugar Bears at a glance
LAST SEASON 13-16 overall, 9-11 Southland
COACH Sandra Rushing (557-350 in 31 seasons overall as a head coach, 154-94 in 8 seasons at UCA)
KEY RETURNERS F Briana Trigg (8.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F Hannah Langhi (8.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg), F Terri Crawford (5.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg), F Ayanna Trigg (5.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg), G Savanna Walker (4.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg), G Romola Dominguez (4.2 ppg, 1.6 rpg)
KEY LOSSES Taylor Sells, Alana Canady
TRANSFERS 5-7 G Tori Lasker, 6-0 F Lucy Ibeh (Colin College), and 5-9 G Lauryn Mapusua (Hutchinson CC)
NOTEWORTHY UCA has been predicted to finish sixth in the 13-team Southland Conference. … Rushing hasn’t had consecutive losing seasons as a head coach since her days at Texas El Paso, where she left after the 2000-01 season. … Lasker, a transfer from UALR, will get a chance to play her former teammates Dec. 14 when UCA hosts UALR. Redshirt freshman G Jalisa Outlaw, from Starkville, Miss., will return to her hometown Dec. 20 when UCA plays at Mississippi State.
UCA WOMEN’S SCHEDULE
12/5;Central Baptist;2 p.m.
12/18;UAPB; 2 p.m
12/20;at Mississippi State;TBA
1/2;at McNeese State;1 p.m.
1/6;at New Orleans;7 p.m.
1/9;Sam Houston State;1 p.m.
1/13;Stephen F. Austin;7 p.m.
1/16;Nicholls; 1 p.m.
1/23;at Abilene Christian;1 p.m.
1/27;at Southeastern Louisiana;7 p.m.
1/30;Northwestern State;1 p.m.
2/6;McNeese State;1 p.m.
2/10;New Orleans;7 p.m.
2/13;at Sam Houston State;6:30 p.m.
2/17;at Stephen F. Austin;TBA
2/20;at Nicholls;1 p.m.
2/27;Abilene Christian;1 p.m.
3/3;Southeastern Louisiana;4 p.m.
3/6;at Northwestern State;1 p.m
Southland Conference Tournament
3/8-14; Katy, Texas