Giving a preview of their teams Wednesday at the Southland Conference Media Day in Houston, Texas, UCA men’s coach Russ Pennell and women’s coach Sandra Rushing gave their thoughts on last season and this season.
Last year, the Sugar Bears won 25 games and eventually found their way into the Women’s Basketball Invitational, which it hosted.
UCA would eventually fall to Yale University 54-50 in the final game of the WBI in front of a raucous Sugar Bear crowd.
“Last year’s group was special,” Rushing said. “We didn’t get to where we wanted to go, but we had an opportunity to play in front of our home crowd. I think that gives our players this year a little bit of seasoning and a glimpse of where we want to go.”
Rushing said she has just three seniors and each played under her just last season, Kamry Orr, Antonija Bozic and Alanie Fisher.
She also said there are just two players left on the last SLC Championship team, juniors Taylor Sells and Maddie Goodner.
On her team’s defense that finished second in the nation in scoring defense, Rushing said that is the philosophy the Sugar Bears will continue to operate under.
“We’re going to stay with the same principles,” she said. “We preach everyday what is expected at UCA and that is to play defense and do the right things. We emphasize defense everyday because I believe defense wins championships.”
Focusing on this season, the Sugar Bears will face a trio of Power 5 teams in nonconference play in University of Oklahoma (Dec. 5), Texas A&M University (Dec. 8) and Kansas State University (Dec. 20).
“We want to play good competition because that’s what we’re going to face in conference play,” she said. “We want to put our players on the big stage to see how they are going to produce and how they are going to respond. We want to give our players every opportunity to experience that and grow.”
On the men’s side of the ball, Pennell talked about the growth his team has made in his four years there.
“It was a big step for us to not only be able to go to the Southland Conference Tournament and to make postseason play.
Last season, the Bears went 18-17, including a SLC Tournament win in the opening round against Lamar before falling to Stephen F. Austin and then, beating Seattle University in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational before falling to Jacksonville State University in the second round.
“It was a staple of the program,” Pennell said. “It was kind of a landmark and something to build on the in the future. I was real pleased with last year’s effort.”
Pennell then talked about taking over a program that was struggling, only retaining Ethan Lee from the Corliss Williamson/Clarence Finley regime.
“When you take over a program, you have to re-establish the culture,” he said. “We were able to recruit some kids who are good basketball players but good students. We had some Academic Progress that our guys took care of.”
Pennell said the players have been doing their job and hope the team can take a step further.
Pennell then turned his attention to this year’s schedule, which includes the University of Missouri (Nov. 6), the University of Louisville (Dec. 5), Indiana University (Dec. 19) and Oklahoma State University (Dec. 21).
“We like to play a difficult nonconference schedule because we found it helps us in recruiting,” he said. “Kids want to play in those types of venues. We’re not afraid to play those teams because we like to be battle tested when we get to the SLC. We’re looking forward to the challenge.
Both Sugar Bears and Bears will start their season on Nov. 6 with the Sugar Bears hosting Central Baptist College at 7 p.m. and the Bears are on the road in Columbia, Missouri, facing the University of Missouri Tigers.