RU women look for another 20-win season

Photo courtesy of RU Athletics The Radford University women are the preseason favorite to take another Big South title this year.

By Marty Gordon

With four non-conference games against Power-5 conference teams to go with the rugged  Big South schedule, the Radford University women’s basketball team faces a tough schedule for 2019-20.

Nevertheless, head coach Mike McGuire said at the recent Big South Conference media day that he is optimistic about this year’s team. Vanderbilt and Alabama from the SEC, Ohio State from the Big 10 and West Virginia from the Big 12 comprise a tough non-conference foursome.

“The non-conference is probably the toughest yet with four being against Power-5 conference schools. This will challenge a very young team out of the gate,” McGuire said.

The Radford women are the preseason pick to win the Big South with Hampton second and UNC-Asheville third.

“It is an honor to be selected as the preseason favorite by your coaching peers,” said McGuire. “It is certainly a position our program prepares for and we expect to compete for conference championships each season.

“We have a strong core of returners from last year’s championship team that should help us prepare for the conference race this year,” the head coach said. “At the same time, this is a new team and we have several new faces in the program this year.  This team will have to mesh and grow throughout their journey in order to compete for a conference championship. We will work hard to accept this challenge and use it as a positive all season long.”

Radford senior center Sydney Nunley (6-4) was named to the Big South preseason first team, while Khiana Johnson was named to the second team.

McGuire, who is in his sixth season as the head coach of the Lady Highlanders, has compiled a 116-75 record after a successful run at Hidden Valley High School in Roanoke where he had back-to-back state titles in 2007 and 2008. His high school record was 105-33 including a stop at William Byrd High School. Twice he was named the Group AA state coach of the year.

At Radford University, he changed the tide of what had been some lean years. The run includes a 10-win overall improvement from the 2013-14 season to 2014-15.

He has directed the Highlanders to five postseason appearances in the past five seasons including a win over Penn State in the 2018 WNIT.  McGuire is a three-time Big South Coach of the Year.

Nunley was second team All-Big South last year, averaging 10.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. In the Big South, Nunley ranked second in rebounds per game, second in blocked shots per game, third in offensive rebounds per game and third in defensive rebounds per game. She concluded the 2018-19 campaign with 267 rebounds, 47 blocks, 28 assists, and 13 steals. Joining the 500-career rebound club, she also registered 12 double-doubles including a stretch where she notched seven in a row. Nunley posted a season-high 22 points on several occasions and pulled down 13 rebounds against Maryland in the NCAA Tournament.

“We will count on her (Nunley) a lot this season, but we have some very good newcomers,” McGuire said. One of the returnees is 5-10 guard Makaila Wilson who was one of the top shooters from distance on the team connecting on 24 of 61 for a .393 percent from behind the arc; and 5-8 guard Jen Falconer who had several bright spots last season and was top-10 in the conference for assists.

The roster includes 6-5 Taiye Johnson, who gives this year’s teams eight players over six-foot tall and is the tallest player the RU program has ever had. She averaged 8.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks during her time at Meadowbrook High School in Richmond. Her oldest brother, Dakari, played for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“She will play right away and give us a big presence on the floor,” McGuire said.

The squad could also benefit from the “transfer portal” with the addition of 5-9 guard Ariel Williams from Western Oklahoma State College. She averaged 17.5 points last season with 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. She previously played at Lamar High School in Arlington, Texas, where she was a two-time all-region selection.

Aiden Raindford could also leave opponents jumping back. The 6-1 forward was a member of the Canadian National Team in both 2015 and 2016. She was on the U-16 Women’s National team that beat Brazil in overtime to win the nation’s first ever FIBA Americas age-group championship.

Just like the men’s Big South Conference schedule, the Lady Highlanders will see everyone twice this year.

Last season, the Big South featured an 18-game schedule but this season each team will play a 20-game double-round-robin schedule. The schedule is broken down by two halves. No team will face each other twice until February, when the second half begins.

Radford opens its Big South slate with a pair of home matches featuring Presbyterian (Dec. 31) on New Year’s Eve and Charleston Southern (Jan. 4). The Highlanders will hit the road for two straight contests, both featuring two of the top three teams in the league from a year ago. The first is High Point (Jan. 6), which finished second in the Big South and the second is Hampton (Jan. 9), which finished third and was the only Big South team to beat Radford in 2018-19.

Following the two road games, Radford will host UNC Asheville on Jan. 11 then travel to Farmville, to face Longwood on Jan. 14. The Highlanders make the return trip home for Winthrop (Jan. 18) before traveling to Spartanburg, S.C., on Jan. 21 for a battle with USC-Upstate and then to Boiling Springs, N.C., to take on Gardner-Webb (Jan. 25). The first half of conference play ends with the 2019 Big South Tournament Final rematch inside the Dedmon Center as Campbell (Jan. 28) returns to the New River Valley.