It’s been an outstanding season of basketball so far at Milligan College.
The men’s and women’s teams have each won five in a row and are contending for championships in the Appalachian Athletic Conference with a half-dozen games remaining.
The Lady Buffs are 11-1 in the league and ranked No. 22 nationally this week. They lead Tennessee Wesleyan by a game in the standings.
The Buffs, meanwhile, are sitting second at 10-2, right behind once-beaten Tennessee Wesleyan. The 25th-ranked Bulldogs were the overwhelming preseason pick and have shown why since losing their conference opener to Point.
They are the only team to have beaten Milligan on its home floor. The rematch in Athens is set for Feb. 9.
For Milligan coach Bill Robinson, it’s a pleasant surprise to be heading into February with a shot at the title. The Buffs were picked a distant third, behind Wesleyan and Reinhardt, in the preseason poll.
“I had a talk the other day with the players about believing we can be in this position,” Robinson said Wednesday. “We’re very young, only playing one senior, and we thought maybe next year or the year after would be our year. Now we’re thinking about making this our year.”
The lone senior in the rotation is forward Tyler DeVault of Kingsport, who has been a fixture for years. He saw something special brewing early this season.
“I’m not really surprised about where we are, because I could see that we’d be good,” said DeVault, who is averaging 12.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. “I feel this team is much more team-oriented. We get along together really well off the court, and that carries over onto the court.
“We didn’t expect to be pushing a streak like this, but we’re excited to see where it goes.”
Junior guard Torian Sitton is leading the Buffs in scoring (13.9) and is tied with DeVault as the top rebounder. Sophomore guard Mickey Woods is scoring 10.9 ppg.
The X-factor has been Cartree Pettis, the freshman guard from Oveido, Fla. He’s scoring 10.1 points per game and leads the AAC in assists (4.4) and steals (2.7).
“He’s really been a big part of our success,” said DeVault. “He’s just all over the court.”
Robinson said this team has had to rely on its defense, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering the Buffs average over 79 points a game and shoot 48 percent from the field.
“We just don’t have the scoring power a lot of teams in our conference have,” he said. “Our league is kind of different; teams are trying to score a hundred. We actually got 91 last night, and that was nine points below what St. Andrews had been allowing.”
Most nights the Buffs (17-7) have simply been able to do what it takes to win.
“You have to get one stop or one bucket when you need it,” said Robinson. “We’ve been able to do both this season.”
This is a three-game week for Milligan, which routed St. Andrews 91-57 on Tuesday night. The Buffs play at Reinhardt tonight and at Bryan on Saturday.
There haven’t been many close calls for the Lady Buffs in the last couple of weeks.
“We’ve continued to improve at a nice, even pace,” said coach Rich Aubrey. “I still feel like we have some improvements ahead of us, but we’re in a good place right now.”
The only conference blemish was a 57-44 loss at home to Tennessee Wesleyan on Jan. 12. A two-point non-conference loss at West Virginia Tech followed, and then the five-game winning streak.
The Lady Buffs blew out St. Andrews 81-53 on Tuesday night.
At 18-7 overall, the team apparently hasn’t been fazed by its position atop the standings, or its national ranking.
“With the success we’ve had, each game brings more responsibility,” said Aubrey. “One of the best compliments I can give the team is that we’ve remained focused.”
Kayla Kelly, the junior guard from Chattanooga, continues to lead the Lady Buffs in scoring (14.5) and steals, and is second in rebounding (6.1).
The balanced attack continues with Johneshia Good (12.0/5.7), Jaimee Hill (10.8/5.8) and Dorian Freeman (9.5/6.3).
Good, Hill, Freeman and Tracy Hardiman have started every game. Kelly has started all but three.
The Lady Buffs hope to get some payback next weekend at Tennessee Wesleyan and lock up the regular-season crown.
“That’s on the horizon,” said Aubrey, “but there’s a lot of business between now and then.”