After falling to North Texas 69-66 in an exhibition game Saturday, the TWU basketball team will officially tip off its season this weekend at the TexAnn Tip-Off Classic in Stephenville.
The Pioneers had a good showing against the Mean Green, leading for the majority of the game and pushing North Texas for a solid 40 minutes. It was a performance TWU coach Beth Jillson said the Pioneers can build on heading into the season.
"We battled from start to finish against UNT," Jillson said. "I was really proud of the way our players stepped up. We were winning the hustle plays, we played hard and we were relentless. Definitely a lot to take away — good and bad — that we can work on and get better from."
One of the Pioneers' biggest challenges will be replacing the offensive production of Kenesha Saygo, who was the team's only player to average in double figures last season.
Saygo (18.7 points per game in 2016) and Emily Spector (9.9 points) graduated, leaving Alexis Nezianya as the highest-scoring returner (8.5).
But TWU got a lot of production out of junior guard KJ Stastny against North Texas, as Stastny scored a team-high 12 points, including a late 3 that made it a one-point game with 15 seconds left.
"It's really not surprising," Jillson said. "She puts in so much work outside of practice getting up shots. I'm always telling her not to turn down open shots, and I was really proud of the way she played with confidence."
With Saygo out of the picture, the Pioneers were picked to finish sixth in the Lone Star Conference. TWU doesn't begin conference play until the end of the month, and it starts the season with plenty of tough competition.
The Pioneers will take on St. Mary's on Friday and Western State on Saturday. St. Mary's is coming off a road win over UTEP in an exhibition game and was picked to finish fourth in the Heartland Conference.
"It will be a challenging first game but definitely one we're excited for," Jillson said. "We're never going to shy away from those games, because it just gets us ready for conference play.
"A lot of teams are overlooking us because we did graduate Kenesha Saygo, but we don't put a lot of stock into the preseason rankings. We know where we want to finish and what our goals are."
TWU battling for LSC tournament seeding
After missing the conference tournament last season, TWU clinched its return to the postseason Saturday with a win over Western New Mexico.
The Pioneers are one of three teams tied for sixth place in the conference and have two games left. TWU will host rival West Texas A&M on Friday before taking on Texas-Permian Basin on senior day Saturday.
"This week is about our seniors, who have really been through every aspect of being a college volleyball player," TWU coach Jeff Huebner said. "From going to the national tournament [in 2015] to not qualifying for the conference tournament. We really owe it to them to put together a great performance and dial in this weekend."
TWU seniors Briley Cole-Lewis, Kerstin Jenkins, Haley Collins and Miri Shade will play their final home games in a Pioneer uniform, and Huebner emphasized how much of an impact the group has had in turning the program around.
Huebner, who took over in March, became TWU's third head coach in seven months. He was able to lean on the senior class to help instill a new culture that played a role in guiding the Pioneers' return to the postseason.
"I can't begin to describe how eternally grateful I am for the way our seniors welcomed our staff and encouraged us and told us what their vision for the team was," Huebner said. "We're going to talk about how this year was the springboard for multitudes of success, all because these girls dialed in and were selfless."
TWU enters its final two games of the regular season having put itself in position to avoid No. 14 Tarleton State in the first round of the LSC tournament. With two wins and some help around the conference, the Pioneers can finish as high as the No. 4 seed going into the postseason.
Finishing on a strong note will be important for the team's chances next week, as the tournament tips off Nov. 16 in Stephenville.
"We're not the team people want to play, because there's a lot of different ways we can beat you," Huebner said. "If we finish the week mentally prepared for the tournament, we're going to be in good shape."