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The 2017-18 season wound down in both historical and championship fashion for the Barton College women’s basketball team.
From the No. 3 seed in the Conference Carolinas tournament, the Lady Bulldogs watched during the opening night of tourney play as the top two seeds above them stumbled to defeat. That meant that the semifinals and championship would be contested in Wilson Gymnasium.
At the time, veteran head coach Wendee Saintsing termed it an “opportunity.” It was one Barton did not squander. Saintsing picked up her 500th victory at the school in winning the Conference Carolinas tournament and sending her seventh Lady Bulldogs team into the NCAA Division II tournament with a final 23-9 record.
Picked to finish second in 2018-19 behind Limestone College, Saintsing assured that the talent, both returning and otherwise, is sufficient to make a run at Barton’s eighth trip to the NCAA field.
“We’ve got three of our starters back,” Saintsing said during an interview in her office Tuesday afternoon. “We just need to find the pieces to fill in around them. We feel like we’ve got the talent in our young people and some returners. We’ve just all got to get on the same page and understanding what our roles are and how things need to be done. But we feel really good about this team.”
The season tips off for the Lady Bulldogs on Nov. 9, when they face Augusta University in the Peach Belt-Conference Carolinas Challenge in Augusta, Ga. One day later, Barton takes on the neutral-floor challenge of UNC Pembroke.
NEAL TO CREATE
Of the three returning starters, senior Dinah Neal gives the Lady Bulldogs their offensive spark from the backcourt. While the point guard responsibilities will likely fall to an underclassman, Neal’s ability to create off the ball and get to the free-throw line is expected to facilitate the Lady Bulldogs’ offense. Although Neal played the point in spurts last season and can do so in an emergency, such an arrangement is not in Barton’s long-term best interests this season.
Neal averaged 11.7 points per game and handed out just under three assists per game, which ranked second on the team.
“She’s very good,” Saintsing said of Neal. “She understands what she does well. She’s going to take a shot every now and then just because she’s going to do it. She understands how to get to the basket and she began to see lanes better last year.”
At the point guard spot, the duties will fall to any number of newcomers, including freshman Akira Wiggins and senior Carmen Richardson, a transfer by way of Queens University and Division III North Carolina Wesleyan.
Hanna McGrory, a junior, has been hampered by back issues and her timetable for return is unknown.
Wiggins, out of Knightdale, has already been hailed as the team’s best on-ball defender, but is still adjusting to Barton’s offensive system and taking quality shots at the collegiate level.
While Richardson didn’t play at Wesleyan and didn’t log a minute at point guard for the Royals, Saintsing saw enough of her during workouts to make her a point guard while the youth develops. Once it does, Richardson’s experience will likely be moved to the two-guard spot to give Neal a breather.
Junior Summer Baer remains a 3-point presence off the bench, but has improved her awareness and presence at the defensive end of the floor.
“Coach doesn’t want her driving the ball,” Saintsing said of Baer. “She wants her shooting it. She doesn’t have a lot to do; she just needs to give us the spot and be ready to shoot it!”
POWER IN FRONTCOURT
In all likelihood, the Lady Bulldogs’ fortunes will rise or fall with their ability to keep senior Kianna Wynn and sophomore Shanika Peterkin on the floor. Wynn, a 6-foot forward out of East Wake, came close to averaging a double-double last year with 17.7 points and nine rebounds and began her career as the Conference Carolinas Freshman of the Year.
Similarly, it didn’t take long for Peterkin to make her imprint not only in Conference Carolinas, but on the national stage. As a freshman, the 6-2 center led Division II with 4.3 blocks per game as a presence that could also alter a number of shots.
However, Peterkin struggled at times with foul trouble and will need to increase her minutes played for the Lady Bulldogs to maximize their potential.
“At times, Shanika became a jumping bean,” Saintsing said. “She wants to kind of block everything that comes in the lane, and I’m trying to talk her down from doing that. She needs to just play some basic, solid defense and help us out in whatever way she needs to as far as guards losing their girl and helping on drives.”
The presence of Wynn and Peterkin opens the door for Barton to go small on the perimeter, with four guards surrounding a shot blocker in Peterkin, or four guards with the versatile Wynn in the post.
“She’ll have a good year,” Saintsing said of Wynn. “Her teammates know that we need to find her on the offensive end. Our post players need to touch the ball on every possession down the court, and she’ll get her looks and she’ll get her opportunities.”
Defensively, the Lady Bulldogs have experienced with a litany of approaches in the preseason, including the pack-line defense of Virginia and the standard man-to-man pressure that Saintsing has used to become one of the top-20 active coaches in Division II in terms of victories.
“We started with a pack-line defense, and we decided to change,” Saintsing said. “We worked on that for a couple of weeks and then we switched back to our pressing man-to-man. We were trying to play pack line, and then everybody wanted to be in the passing lanes. So now, we’re getting in the passing lanes and everybody wants to sag back. We’re not sure exactly where we are right now.”
But even without a consistent defensive identity at the moment, the Lady Bulldogs aren’t stopping short of setting their sights on another trip to the NCAA tournament.
“I think we can be there again,” Saintsing said. “I think this team is more talented than the team last year. We can be a better defensive team, and I think we can be a better offensive team. But it’s just a matter of how long it takes for us to gel and figure out where we need to be as a team, and the philosophy of how we want to play — and get everybody to buy in.”