As temperatures cool and the sun sets earlier, Bears fans’ gaze will soon shift from the field to the court.
Since practice officially opened in October, both the Lenoir-Rhyne men’s and women’s basketball teams have been working to follow up two of the most successful seasons in the school’s recent memory.
In 2019, both programs advanced to the conference semifinal, a first for the Bears since 2009. The women fell to Anderson University 77-65 in the South Atlantic Conference Final Four, while the men were edged out 71-67 by Catawba in the conference championship game.
That effort earned Everick Sullivan’s men’s team an NCAA Tournament berth, the first for the program since 2016.
Despite losing four starters, Sullivan said the goal remains the same now that the team has showed what it is capable of.
“We’ve got a different mixture, but I think we’ve got a good group of guys with the right mindset that understands the way you get there is just by focusing on getting better each and every day,” Sullivan said this week.
Two big pieces of fulfilling those expectations of championship contention are juniors R.J. Gunn and Mason Hawks.
Gunn, the lone returning starter, brings an inside-out game that is unique to the Division II level at his size and frame. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward shot 37 percent from 3-point range last year and averaged just under 10 points per game.
Gunn said he focused this summer on reshaping his body to battle more on the interior in the hopes of snaring more rebounds for the Bears, a need left by the graduation of former big man Bertrand Awana.
Hawks said he focused on rounding out his game over the summer, from his role as a spot-up shooter and bench sparkplug last year to a complete guard that can create for others and for himself.
Despite losing the trio of Cory Thomas, Djibril Diallo and Jon Jean, Hawks is confident there won’t be any letdown in Lenoir-Rhyne’s guard play.
“We played behind those guys last year, but we competed every day in practice,” Hawks said. “When we came off the bench, it was like we weren’t losing anything. I feel like we didn’t lose much there, we’re coming in just as strong this year.”
In addition to Hawks, redshirt junior Darius Simmons returns after seeing time last season, playing a key role late in the year. Simmons shot 35 of 62 from deep in 2018-19, a scorching 57 percent, en route to scoring just under eight points a game in 15 minutes per contest.
Lenoir-Rhyne also has Swiss Army Knife senior Deontae Weaver returning after he saw time at both guard and forward last season.
“This is a different team from last year,” Sullivan said. “We can play big lineups, small lineups, we’re going to be very quick, fast, have perimeter shooting and playmaking ability, and we’ll probably be just as good in transition.
“And we should utilize the three-point line as a weapon,” he added.
For women’s basketball coach Cam Sealey, a top-four finish in the SAC is again the expectation after doing so last season.
“It’s really going to come down to the chemistry piece, playing together, playing for each other,” Sealey said. “They know it, we talk about it; that could either propel us or hold us back.”
In addition to chemistry, a big piece of the puzzle will be replacing the leadership and production of the departed senior class, in particular Kendall Toineeta and Alexander Central alumnus Madi Suddreth.
Two big pieces of that will be senior Karlie Bearden and junior Kennedy Weigt. Bearden, a sweet-shooting forward, said the coaching staff challenged her to extend her range to the 3-point line this offseason.
Weigt often played off the ball last year, with Toineeta running the show; now, she’ll be tasked with creating for others, and has worked on getting to the rim and playmaking.
In addition to those two, Lenoir-Rhyne will have SAC All-Freshman Team recipient Madeline Hardy, sophomore Alyssa Wagner, sophomore Tatum McBride and sophomore Hanna McCLung returning to the team, among others.
Both McBride and McClung will be returning from injuries sustained last season, with McClung practicing but not ready for game action yet.
Bearden also highlighted a freshman class that has bought into the culture and meshed nicely into the team’s style of play.
“Last year, we were kind of just led by Madi and Kendall,” Weigt said. “I just think (the team) is going to look to us more now and our abilities to lead them vocally.”
Sealey also highlighted the intention to play faster with a more athletic team that is aggressive defensively, adding the team often practices with a 12-second shot clock.
“Really, we’ve tried to increase our possessions to fill that void of what Kendall and Madi did for us with their value of a possession.”
This weekend, both teams will travel to season-opening conference tournaments against teams in the Southeast Region.
The women will head down to Greenwood, South Carolina, to take on Lander (5:30 p.m. today) and USC Aiken (1 p.m. Saturday). Last season, Lenoir-Rhyne was edged out by Lander 55-53 on opening night before falling to USC Aiken 86-69 the next day.
“They’re talented teams, they’re really skilled, but I think we’re really confident in what we’ve got going,” Weigt stated.
Sealey said if she had a pick of who will win this region this year, Lander would be one of the contenders.
“It’ll challenge us but it’ll be good for us,” Sealey said. “Our biggest thing is we want to have a better showing the second day, because last year we struggled with that a bit.”
The men will travel to Young Harris, Georgia, to take on Emmanuel today at 5:30 p.m. and Young Harris on Saturday at 4 p.m. The Bears swept the tournament last season, defeating Young Harris 101-72 and Emmanuel 91-87.
Gunn and Sullivan all downplayed a statement to be made on regional rankings or polls this weekend, and said they’re just focused on coming away with two wins.
“We just want to make sure everybody is ready to fight every game,” Gunn said.
“We just got to worry about us, get better and lock in,” Sullivan added. “Play to the best of our ability with the energy and effort we know we’re capable of. Just play Bears basketball.”