NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Belmont women's basketball team enters the second year of the Ezell era this week when it opens the 2011-12 campaign with a three-game road swing. The Bruins face off against two in-state rivals, UT-Martin and Memphis, before closing the trip at Auburn early next week.
The reigning Ohio Valley Conference champion Skyhawks return 10 players from one year ago, including leading scorer Heather Butler, who averaged 19 points per game. The top rebounder from last season, Jaclissa Haislip, also returns. She pulled down 8.1 boards per contest.
UT-Martin received votes in the CollegeInsider.com Women's Mid-Major Top 25 for the first time in program history after being selected to finish second in the OVC regular season race by the league's coaches and sports information directors. Last year, the Skyhawks went 21-11 overall and 14-4 in the OVC to finish second en route to claiming their first conference Tournament title. UT Martin then went on to make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament where they fell to Duke in first round action.
Belmont holds the all-time series advantage 14-5, winning two of the last three meetings.
Memphis returns nine players from last year's squad, including Brittany Carter and Jasmine Lee, who averaged 13.8 and 12.4 points per game, respectively. Lee was also the team's leader in rebounds, pulling down 8.2 per outing. Carter was named to the College Sports Madness High-Major Preseason All-American Second. She was the C-USA Preseason Player of the Year while Lee was named to the Preseason Conference USA Second Team.
The Tigers went 21-13 overall and 8-8 in Conference USA en route to a trip to the WNIT last season. UM, who notched its second consecutive 20-win season in 2011, was selected by the league's head coaches to claim the C-USA regular season crown. Memphis picked up a 79-57 win over Arkansas-Monticello in preseason action last weekend.
Belmont holds a 4-1 all-time series advantage over the Tigers. BU won the last meeting between the programs in 2008, 69-60.
Auburn returns 10 letterwinners from last year's campaign, including forward Blanche Alverson, who was second on the team in scoring, adding 10.2 points per game. Alverson is also the top returning rebounder, grabbing 4.7 boards per contest last year.
The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in both the coaches and media preseason Southeastern Conference polls after finishing 16-16 overall and 8-8 in SEC play last year. Auburn notched a decisive 85-25 win over Georgia College and State University in a preseason matchup at the end of October.
Tuesday night's contest will mark only the second time these teams have faced off. Auburn won the lone meeting, 77-59, in 2002.
Despite graduating a pair of starters, Belmont returns to the hardwood stacked for 2011-12. Center Haley Nelson (Scottsboro, Ala.), who was named to the Preseason All-Atlantic Sun for a second consecutive season, is the top returning scorer and rebounder for the Bruins. She averaged 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per contest one year ago. Sophomore Molly Ernst (Louisville, Ky.) was one of the best three-point shooters in NCAA Division I, finishing ranked 29th in three-point field goals per game (2.7) and 39th in three-point field-goal percentage (39.1).
The Bruins went 11-20 overall and 7-13 in league play in the first year under Head Coach Brittney Ezell. The Bruins advanced to the semifinals of the 2011 Atlantic Sun Tournament, making Ezell only the second BU coach to take her team into postseason play in her first season at the helm. Belmont was picked to finish fourth in the A-Sun regular season race by the conference's head coaches.
BU opens the 2011-12 season on the road at UT-Martin on Friday night. Game time is set for 7 p.m. Live stats and a live audio broadcast will be available.