NASHVILLE, Tenn.- After winning six of its final seven non-conference games, the Belmont University women's basketball team (8-5) kicks off its conference season Thursday, Dec. 29 when it travels to Eastern Illinois (4-8). Tip off from Lantz Arena is slated for 6 p.m. Central time and will be streamed live on the OVC Digital Network.
"We are looking forward to the start of a new season with OVC play beginning on Thursday. We played a very challenging non-conference schedule with the idea that it would prepare us for the many different styles of play that we will face in conference. We have a tough road game at Eastern Illinois and I look forward to watching our ladies compete and refocus on the start of our conference journey" said Belmont Head Coach Cameron Newbauer.
The Bruins last competed on Dec. 22 when they claimed an 83-58 victory on the road at Presbyterian. After leading by 11 at the half, the Bruins connected on 75% of their second half shots to leave Clinton, S.C. with a convincing win and a victory heading into the holiday break. Redshirt junior Kylee Smith (Alpharetta, Ga.) finished with 20 points to lead all scorers as she finished with 20 or more for the third time this season.
Smith's 14.2 points per game led the Bruins during their non-league slate. Sophomore guard Darby Maggard (Larwill, Ind.) finished at 13.6 points per game to go with her team-best 5.7 assists per game. Maggard connected on a team-best 42 three-pointers which ranks her in the top 10 nationally. Sally McCabe (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) scored 10.7 points to go with 7.7 rebounds per game during the non-conference season, anchoring Belmont in the paint both offensively and defensively.
Eastern Illinois, picked to finish 12th in the OVC, finished with a 4-8 record during its non-conference schedule and has lost six-straight contests. The Panthers are 2-3 at home so far this season, and picked up their last win vs. Illinois Springfield (74-60) on Nov. 26 at Lantz Arena. Junior guard Grace Lennox, who hails from Tasmania, leads the team in scoring at 12.7 points per game and in assists with 4.3. Lennox is one of four Panthers to average north of 10 points per game, teammate Erica Brown is another, the 6'1 senior averages 12.2 per contest to go with her team-best 7.3 rebounds per game. Reigning OVC Freshman of the Week, Allison Van Dyke, averages 10.3 as well. The Panthers are shooting 43% from the field as a team which is the second best mark in the conference while their 8.8 steals per game are the fifth highest average in the league. Head Coach Debbie Black, former Ohio State assistant coach and WNBA player, is in her fourth season at the helm for the Panthers.
Thursday marks the eighth meeting all time between the programs. Belmont sports a 3-4 record in those meetings. The last meeting occurred on Jan. 9 of last season when paced by 20 points from Smith, the Bruins knocked off the Panthers, 89-61 in Nashville. Belmont shot 56 percent from the floor, knocked down 13 three's and dished out 27 assists and its win snapped a six-game losing skid and was its first of 13 conference wins.
In each of Coach Newbauer's first three seasons at Belmont, his teams have progressed throughout the season and have played well during the conference season. Newbauer's Bruins have compilled 10-6, 11-7 and 13-3 records in his first three seasons, respectively. Newbauer's winning percentage in OVC play entering this season is .680.
Both this season and last season, Belmont registered an 8-5 record during its non-conference season, which is its best mark since the 2008-09 season.
After squaring off with EIU, Belmont faces a quick turnaround as it will play its final contest of 2016 on the road at Austin Peay on Dec. 31.