180309 UNA vs Lee SE Regional 43 (copy)

UNA women's basketball coach Missy Tiber is eager to see the Lions compete in their first season on the Division I level. The Lions return four starters from last season. [ MATT MCKEAN/TIMESDAILY]

FLORENCE — The debut season in Division I and the ASUN Conference is fast approaching for the North Alabama women’s basketball team.

The Lions are less than two weeks away from their season opener at Vanderbilt on Nov. 6

Like everyone else in the program, head coach Missy Tiber is eager to see how her team stacks up against longtime Division I programs.

“I really don’t know yet what to expect and won’t know until we start playing some conference games,” Tiber said. “I’ve watched some of them on film, but until you get out there you don’t really know.

“I have looked at the stats and besides Florida Gulf Coast, there are not a lot of teams putting up a lot of points and running an up-tempo style. So I’m real excited to see how our system is going to work in the ASUN.

The big question in the preseason has been the health of Ivy Wallen. The junior point guard was enjoying an outstanding season when she suffered a torn ACL in her left knee in a game against West Florida on Jan. 25. Wallen underwent surgery, missed the remainder of the season and there was some question if she would be fully recovered for the start of the 2018-19 season.

Wallen averaged 17.9 points per game and led Division II in assists at 9.4 per game in her sophomore season.

After three weeks of practice, Tiber said Wallen is getting close to being her old self and expects her to be in the lineup for the season opener.

“Ivy is close to being her normal self and we see flashes of what she used to do,” Tiber said. “She is getting her confidence back, and that just comes with time. It takes time to get back mentally, which is the case with anyone coming back from that injury.

“You can see Ivy getting more confident every day. There are days where she is hurting a little, which is normal. We’re doing everything we can to get her where she needs to be. We’re not trying to get her back to where she was, but even better.”

The Lions have had to deal with other injuries during the preseason. Freshman Savannah Holt suffered a torn ACL in preseason workouts. The 6-foot-1 guard had surgery and will miss the season.

Junior guard Kenysha Coulson has also be sidelined. Coulson was the Lions’ top player off the bench last season, averaging 5.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. She missed five games with a stress fracture in her foot last November and has since suffered the same injury twice.

“The good news is we now know what is causing the stress fractures and we can eliminate some of the pressure,” Tiber said. “We’ve been limiting her to about 30 minutes per practice, but she is full-speed in those 30 minutes. I expect her to be able to play this year.”

UNA returns four starters from last year’s team which finished 24-5 and played in the Division II NCAA tournament.

Junior guard Emma Wallen led the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game, while junior forward Brittany Panetti averaged 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Junior guard Ansley Eubank (8.7 ppg., 5.8 rpg.) also returns as well as senior guard Savannah Stults (6.4 ppg., 4.1 rpg.), who started after Ivy Wallen’s injury.

Senior Katelyn Nunley and sophomore Darby Madden also return. The Lions will also have four freshmen providing depth in guards Sarah Suttle and Olivia Graham, along with post players Jaylin Austin and Deja Walls.

UNA was recently picked to finish eighth out of nine teams in the preseason ASUN Coaches Poll. Tiber said she was not surprised to be picked so low in ASUN, even with the success the Lions enjoyed last season.

“I am cautiously optimistic about our team,” she said. “I know what we have. There is no doubt in my mind if we were in the GSC we would be the preseason No. 1, but we’re not.

“We’re ranked preseason No. 8, although we haven’t even talked about that. I don’t even care about that — what I care about is that we paint the picture for our team and what we are going to be. As coaches, we have to get it right early, we have to make adjustments and we have to put our kids in position to be successful.”

jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com or 256-740-5737. Twitter @TD_JeffMcintyre

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