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Nov. 5, 2007
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - USC Upstate's women's basketball coach, Tammy George, is excited, as she heads into her third season at the Spartanburg campus. In a way, it's easy to see why.
The Spartans are moving to the NCAA Division I and the Atlantic Sun Conference. Their first game will take place in one of the most hallowed arenas in the history of the game, Memorial Coliseum at the University of Kentucky where the legendary men's coach, Adolph Rupp, won 16 Southeastern Conference regular season championships and two NCAA titles. For a self-proclaimed basketball rat, it doesn't get any better.
George also stocked up perhaps the best recruiting class in the history of USC Upstate, signing an NJCAA scoring champ, a Charlotte Observer Player of the Year, and a Georgia Class AAA Player of the Year among an influx of 10 new players.
It's the dawn of a new era, for sure, within the women's basketball program. Gone are all but four players from the 2006-07 team that went 11-17 in its final year in Division II. Only two of those players, Courtney Bradley and Ebony Johnson, were recruited by George's predecessor and neither have played a collegiate minute for anyone but George. This is, for the first time since she stepped on campus, George's team.
"With only four returners, it's like having a new time," George said. "It's a fresh start and right now, the players are sponge-like. They are very eager to learn."
The tools are there in the newcomers -- two incoming 3-point specialists, four incoming players above 6-0, a defensive stopper and three players that averaged more than 20 points per game during their last high school or junior college season. The tools are also there in the returners -- 65 combined starts in three proven backcourt contributors and a player who has been a spark of the bench for two seasons.
Now, as the women's basketball team faces its toughest challenge in the 30-year history of the program, complete with six games against teams that made postseason tournaments in 2006-07, it's time to see where the pieces will fall in place.
"I've seen a lot of progress, just through our last few fall workouts," George said. "We're very young, but I think the work ethic is there and we're just going to get better. There's still a lot of unknowns, obviously, but we just don't know that right now. It could be a different person every night."
The Spartans, with only four players returning on the team, find a comparative wealth of experience in the players battling for the point guard slot, as junior Courtney Bradley and sophomore Courtney Hawkins each have starting experience at the position.
"I think they are going to battle each other at point guard," George said. "We need the point guard to run the team and be a leader and score, too, if we need it. I think it's exciting, though. They are going to push each other and both of them finished the year very strong, so I think it's going to be interesting."
Bradley, a 5-5 Columbia, S.C. native, has been asked to do a little bit of everything for the Spartans during her first two years at Upstate. She has rarely left the court, though, averaging 30.4 minutes per game during her career.
She can shoot the three, having drained 90 during her career, rebound, averaging 2.6 per game, dish out the assist, averaging 4.4 per game in her career, swipe an opponent, posting 74 career steals, and score, averaging 17.8 points per game in the last four games of 2006-07.
"She's had, to me, two very good years," George said. "What we want her to do more thsi year, and I think she started to do that more at the end of last year, is become more aggressive on the offensive end. She's got to be a leader and distribute the ball, but we also need her to score."
Hawkins, from nearby Greer High School, also has a year in George's system under her belt. The 5-4 guard started 13 games as a freshman and came on strong at the end of the season, averaging 16.8 points during the last four games. She added 55 assists and 36 steals in 24 games.
"She had an exciting finish to the season last year," George said. "She took on a new role and became more aggressive on offense when we really needed her to. That's what we expect out of her, but she also has to help run our offense."
At the other guard slots, besides Bradley and Hawkins, who can interchange between No. 1 and No. 2, the Spartans also have five other players battling for time.
Junior Cherale Powell comes to Upstate after two years at Wilkes Community College, where she was the NJCAA Division I scoring champ as a freshman, averaging 27.7 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, which was second in the NJCAA.
"We're very excited to have Cherale," George said. "She's a great player. She's a little undersized at 5-9, but she can play inside and outside. Her numbers speak volumes. When you are putting up 24 points and 18 rebounds, I don't care if that's in high school, you're getting it done. She just plays hard."
Freshman Tiffany Whiting, a 5-9 guard from Troutman, N.C., will also provide points and toughness from the No. 2 or No. 3 slot after earning Charlotte Observer Player of the Year honors as a prep senior. She averaged 26.3 points and 13.7 rebounds per game for South Iredell High School.
"She put up huge numbers in her high school career," George said. "She has a lot of confidence in herself and her shooting. I'd like to see her get stronger and handle the ball a little better, but we're very excited to have her."
Junior Ebony Johnson, a 5-7 Columbia, S.C. native, has been the spark off the bench for the Spartans during the last two seasons. Last season, while battling injuries, Johnson averaged 8.3 points per game and was extremely active on the boards, grabbing 6.1 rebounds per game.
"She just got released to do some stuff in early August, so she's a little behind," George said, "but she's working hard to catch back up. She's an exciting player. She's played everything from the No. 1 to No. 4 slot for us. She's got that athletic ability. She's made tons of strides during her two years. Her shooting has gotten better. Defensively, she has gotten better. She will play a big role in our success this year."
Sophomore Samerria Crowder, a 5-9 guard, comes to USC Upstate from Tallahassee Community Colelge, where she was a Second Team All-Panhandle selection, averaging 8.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. George said she will look to use Crowder as a defensive stopper, as she is an active defender, but said she can also contribute with her explosive ability on the offensive end.
Freshman Kayla Wells, a 5-9 Bristol, Va., native, will also add both a serious 3-point threat and a scoring mentality for the Spartans. Wells hit 69 3-pointers as a senior at Virginia High School and was a Highlands District Player of the Year as a junior.
The Spartans have a host of versatility in the frontcourt, with seven post players on the roster to fill the 3, 4 and 5 slots.
Freshman Oceana Jackson will play an immediate role on the Spartans after earning Georgia's Class AAA Player of the Year honors as a senior at Franklin County High School. Jackson averaged 23.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game as a senior and she earned two first team all-state selections during her prep career.
"The sky is the limit for Oceana," George said. "We've told her it's pretty much up to her. She can play inside and outside. She has post moves with her back to the basket or she can step out on the perimeter and hit the three."
Freshman Brittany Thompson, a 5-9 Columbia, S.C. native, will also see time at both the No. 3 and No. 4 positions. A powerful, athletic wing, Thompson is men's assistant coach Steve Smith's sister-in-law. George said that Thompson is an exciting player that can do multiple things well on the floor, including rebounding and shooting.
Freshman Kasey Thompson is another player that George said could have a major impact on the program immediately. A 3-point specialist, Thompson led the state of Indiana in 3-point percentage as a senior, hitting 48.9 percent from long range. The 5-10 Marion, Ind., native averaged 13.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a senior.
"She's an all-around player," George said. "She can pass. She knows how to put the ball in the goal. She has a lot of confidence in herself. She has size for a wing and as long as she wants to work hard, she'll do great things here."
The lone player coming back to the Spartans from the frontcourt is 5-10 sophomore forward Shanea Wyant. Wyant appeared in 22 games and started five games for the Spartans, averaging 12.3 minutes and 2.8 points per game.
"I think, Shanea, in the offseason has really made a commitment," George said. "She kind of came on toward the end of last season and showed us some signs of what we want to see. I see her, hopefully, in the top eight in our rotation."
Westfield, a 5-11 St. Petersburg, Fla., native, was a First Team All-Southern FCCAA honors as a senior after averaging 10.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Westfield can fill in immediately at the No. 4 slot, with a good ability to grab rebounds.
The Spartans plan to redshirt sophomore Samantha Frost, a 6-0 transfer from North Greenville. Frost averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds per game during her time at McDonough High School in Baltimore, Md. George said that Frost will not only help the other post players develop, but that her size and natural ability will be an asset to the team in the next three years.
Pitman, from Avery High School, averaged 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds while being named the Western Highlands Player of the Year. George said that she expects Pitman to keep improving and developing into the system after coming from a guard-oriented program in high school.
Tranum, a 6-2 center from Bluff City, Tenn., will also immediately step in and help in the post. She averaged 7.9 points and 3.7 rebounds per game during her senior campaign. George said that Tranum has made some strides during her time and that she will look for her to continue to improve throughout the season.
The Spartans will kick off the Division I era on Nov. 10 when they travel to Kentucky, who won two games in the postseason WNIT last season, for a game at the historic Memorial Coliseum.
"I come from a basketball family and our coaching staff certainly follow that history," George said. "We are excited about that. We want our kids to experience thos kinds of things. I think they are going to see what it's like at that level."
The team will continue to face challenges from many different teams that have become accustomed to winning traditions, as they also travel to Atlantic Coast Conference power and NCAA Second Round team Georgia Tech on Dec. 6 and Big South Conference champs UNC Asheville on Jan. 8.
Upstate also plays four conference games during their first go-round in the Atlantic Sun Conference against teams that made the postseason in 2006-07, with home-and-home meetings against NCAA Tournament team Belmont and WNIT team East Tennessee State.
The Spartans also face off in non-conference road matches at the ACC's Wake Forest (Nov. 13), the Big South's Charleston Southern (Nov. 16), Radford (Jan. 3) and Winthrop (Jan. 16), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's North Carolina A&T (Nov. 27) and the Southern Conference's Georgia Southern (Dec. 1) and College of Charleston (Dec. 3).
George said the mix of games between both large conference schools and similar mid-major programs was important. "We obviously wanted to play a big game or two and get our name out there," she said. "We also wanted to schedule games against similar programs, like UNC Asheville and Radford. I feel like we can be competitive."
At the Hodge Center, Upstate will host three non-conference foes, the Mid-Continent Conference's IUPUI (Nov. 21), Limestone College (Nov. 24) and the MEAC's Bethune-Cookman (Dec. 31).
Upstate will also face off in a complete, 16-game Atlantic Sun slate that features home-and-home series against Belmont, ETSU, Campbell, Gardner-Webb and Lipscomb. The Spartans will play single-road dates at North Florida (Jan. 28), Florida Gulf Coast (Feb. 9) and Stetson (Feb. 11) and single-home games against Jacksonville (Jan. 25), Mercer (Feb. 2) and Kennesaw State (Feb. 4).