After a tough non-conference schedule with losses to teams like Tennessee and South Carolina, the Bucs (2-14) open Southern Conference play at rival Chattanooga on Jan. 12. It's an unusual situation for ETSU with 14 days between its last game against High Point on Dec. 29 and the Chattanooga game.
However, it's a situation that is allowing the Bucs to finally get healthy.
"For the first time all season, we had everybody back in practice," ETSU coach Brittney Ezell said. "With the students gone, we've been able to practice a couple of times a day and clean up some things. This year, we played 16 non-conference games where the men don't play as many since The Citadel and VMI don't have women's basketball. We cram so many games in November and December where we don't have time off, so this has been nice."
The Bucs had some momentum coming off a hard-fought loss to then No. 9 Tennessee, but suffered a setback in a 73-65 loss to High Point. Still, this team was picked as Southern Conference favorites before the season and expects to compete in league play.
"It's difficult, but I think going into conference is why our kids are playing the way the play, and work as hard as they do," Ezell said. "We understand the situation we're in and our university president, athletic director and fans also know it. They understand we're trying to win the league, while expanding our brand through the non-conference schedule."
One bright spot in the High Point loss was Sadasia Tipps, who scored a career-high 14 points. If Tipps, a tough rebounder and defender throughout her collegiate career, can contribute on the offensive end consistently, it adds another dimension for the Bucs.
"She took the opportunity to lead us in scoring," Ezell said. "We've made some changes to make her more active like Erica (Haynes-Overton). That game, she had 14 points, eight rebounds and five blocks."
Haynes-Overton, a sophomore guard, leads the Bucs with 15.9 points and 3.6 assists per game. The rest of the team has struggled offensively with the next leading scorers Raven Dean at 7.5 points and Britney Snowden at 7.4 points per game. The break has allowed junior guard Jada Craig, who has appeared in just four games this season, to finally get back on the court.
"I'm thrilled to have Jada Craig back on the floor," Ezell said. "Jada has been a breath of fresh air, an upperclassman playing in the backcourt. She is a calming force, extremely athletic, and she understands our offense. I'm happy for her. Our training staff and doctors have done a great job with all of our students. They've been through rehab and are ready to go."
Kaia Upton, the freshman who has been playing alongside Haynes-Overton, had an ankle sprain that put her on the sidelines for a couple of days — but she should be good for the Chattanooga game, giving the Bucs more depth in the backcourt.
Carley Lytton, who leads the team in 3-point shooting, and Micah Sheetz, who scored 15 points in the Tennessee game, could also prove to be tough matchups for conference opponents.
"Erica saw a lot of success against conference opponents last year," Ezell said. "It will be new for Micah and our incoming guards. They're excited and our coaching staff has conveyed to them the end game and the goal. I feel like we match up well from top to bottom with teams in the league."