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The calendar may be turning over to a new year, but for the basketball teams at St. Catharine College, 2013 will be no different when it comes to the level of competition they will face.
For both the Patriot men and women, the second half of the season will bring a rigorous schedule, as they fight their way through the Mid-South Conference, the NAIA league that has to be considered the toughest in the nation. In the latest polls there were five MSC women’s teams ranked in the top-25. There were four men’s teams in the top-25 and another team receiving votes.
Both St. Catharine teams went to the Christmas break with a 1-3 conference slate, but both Lena Bramblett and J.T. Burton are very optimistic that their respective teams can make a serious run toward the top of the standings by the end of the regular season. The jockeying for top seeds in the conference tournament is more important this year than in previous seasons since only eight of the 11 conference teams will make it to the postseason tournament in Frankfort.
Lena Bramblett, in her 10th season at the helm of the Patriot program, knows there is no need to panic about her team’s 1-3 conference start.
“You obviously don’t want to be playing your best basketball in November, but instead in February,” said Bramblett, whose team is 7-4 overall. “We will come back from the break good and rested. They needed that time off because we had a tough early schedule with a lot of road games.”
The Patriots will jump right back into tough road games when the schedule resumes Jan. 3. That is when the Patriots will travel to Lebanon, Tenn. to take on No. 7 Cumberland University (11-0, 4-0). Two days later they will visit No. 16 University of the Cumberlands (9-4, 2-2). The first home game of the new year is Jan. 10, when No. 15 Shawnee State (12-3, 3-2) comes to Lourdes Hall.
The other MSC teams in the top-25 are No. 10 Campbellsville (11-2, 5-0), who sits atop the conference standings, and No. 21 Georgetown (5-5, 2-2). Two of the three conference setbacks were at home against those two teams, dropping a 78-69 decision to Georgetown and a 90-70 loss to Campbellsville.
While Bramblett wouldn’t make any excuses for those losses, they did come without the team’s leading scorer from last year, Janae Howard, who sat out with stress fractures in each leg. When Howard did return on Dec. 1, the Patriots topped then-No. 17 Lindsey Wilson 73-69.
“Of course she is a big part of our offense and rebounding,” added Bramblett. “We will continue to use her carefully. With her back in the lineup, and the new players now seeing how tough our conference is, we can hope to improve in the standings.”
Moving up in the standings is of utmost importance as Bramblett related.
“Last year five of the teams in our conference made it to the national tournament. We, of course, would like to win the conference, but if we don’t, we still need to take care of business and stay toward the top, because our main goal is to get to the national tournament.”
J.T. Burton, in his fifth season as head coach, is also quick to point out the degree of difficulty in Mid-South Conference competition. The Patriot mentor noted that last year’s champion, Lindsey Wilson, finished with four conference losses. St. Catharine finished in third place with a 9-7 record.
“I really think 10-6 could be good enough to win it this year,” said Burton, whose Patriots are 7-5 overall. “Lindsey Wilson already has the upper hand this season with two road wins.”
One of those wins came against St. Catharine in a 77-68 decision. The Patriots have also lost to Georgetown (90-80) and to MSC newcomer Bluefield (84-74). The Patriots’ conference win came at home in a 69-65 verdict over Campbellsville.
Just like the MSC women, the men have more teams in the NAIA top-25 than any other conference in the nation. University of the Cumberlands (12-1, 4-0) is No. 2, Pikeville (13-1, 4-1) is No. 4, Lindsey Wilson (13-1, 4-1) is No. 8 and Campbellsville (9-3, 3-2) is No. 20. Georgetown is in the ‘also receiving votes’ category.
“What you really need to do in the regular season is to finish in the top three,” said Burton. “That means you wouldn’t have to play the No. 1 seed until the finals.”
The Patriots’ hopes of such a finish have been buoyed by the recent addition of some players who recently gained, or regained, eligibility. Travis Wilkins, a first-team all-conference selection last season, played in the final two games before the Christmas break, and the 6-8 senior will definitely be a factor in the second half of the season.
Another recent addition to the team is 6-7 Arthur McMillan, who will begin play in January. McMillan began his college career at Morehead State, where he played in 26 games as a freshman for Donnie Tyndall. After playing his sophomore season at Lawson State Community College, McMillan signed with D-I Samford University, but ended up not playing for the Bulldogs.
“Arthur will give us the depth we need at the post position,” said Burton.
Five other players will join the team for the remaining 14 games on the schedule, all of them conference contests. That stretch of games begins Jan. 3 at Cumberland (Tenn.) and moves to No. 2 University of the Cumberlands on Jan. 5. The first home game of the new year will be Jan. 10 against Shawnee State.
While the Patriots’ overall record is not where Burton would like it to be, he did find comfort in another important statistic off the court.
“Our team had a 3.0 grade-point average for the first semester,” he said. “That is the fourth consecutive season that we have had a 3.0 or better for the first semester.”