Both the men and the women will play quarterfinal contests in the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament Thursday at the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center in Kingsport. The fourth-seeded men will play Bluefield at 10:15 a.m. while the top-seeded women will face Montreat at noon.
For Milligan’s women, two wins to close out the regular season took a lot of heat off the Buffs heading into this week’s conference tournament. By beating Bryan College and Columbia last week to clinch the AAC regular-season title, Milligan was able to lock up an automatic berth in the NAIA Division II national tournament, which will start on March 9 in Souix City, Iowa.
The wins over Bryan and Columbia came on the heels of a disappointing home loss against Point on Feb. 13. Milligan coach Rich Aubrey credited his players for bouncing back so strongly.
“We had a great week of practice and we played very well at Bryan on Wednesday and played well (against Columbia) on Senior Day as well,” Aubrey said. “Our players deserve a lot of credit for how they got back into the gym Monday after the Point loss and got down to work.”
Allison Jones played a big role in how Milligan closed out the regular season, and as a result, she earned the AAC Player of the Week award. Jones poured in 34 points against Bryan and added 14 points and seven boards against Columbia.
“She was great at Bryan, especially in the first quarter,” Aubrey said. “She helped get us off to a great start. She created a matchup problem for them and, to some degree, had them on their heels defensively, and it created opportunities for other people as well.”
As the tournament begins, Aubrey said he expects his players to be focused as they prepare for the intensity of postseason basketball. The Buffs may be the top seed, but Aubrey said there’s been a fine line between winning and losing all season long, and he only expects things to get tougher from this point forward.
“As far as the conference goes, we haven’t had too many blowout wins,” he said. “It’s a credit to our team that we’ve done a good job winning those close, competitive games, but we’re going to have to do the same thing at the tournament this week.”
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While the women have already punched their ticket to nationals, Milligan’s men will be in survival mode starting Thursday against Bluefield. The Buffs’ only path to the national tournament is to win the AAC championship game on Saturday.
But it all starts against a Bluefield team that Milligan coach Bill Robinson said will force his team to execute in the halfcourt in order to survive and advance. With several veteran players in the mix, Robinson is confident the Buffs will be ready to put their best foot forward under the pressure of the postseason.
“I think this team is in a good mindset,” he said. “They’re confident. They know they can beat anybody on any night, and they can lose to anybody on any given night. That motivates you to play hard every possession.”
Kurt Brooks (17.8 ppg) and Julian Bailey (15.3 ppg, 11.1 rpg) have led the charge for Milligan all year, but sharpshooter David Casaday has recently emerged as the team’s third leading scorer, and Robinson believes the Sullivan East product could provide the Buffs with a big boost Thursday.
“The tempo they play is a slower tempo than most teams in our conference play,” Robinson said. “They’re actually the No. 1 scoring defense in our league, so if you have somebody who can make shots and especially can make tough shots, and David has certainly done that, it just allows everything to open up more.”
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This season has been a time of transition for the swimming program.
With Jes Sutton preparing to retire, assistant coach Kelly Chism has been slowly assuming the duties of head coach, a role she will take on officially starting next season. Chism, who swam collegiately at Milligan, said the adjustment has been a smooth one thus far.
“With coach Jes still being here, the whole year he has been kind of easing me into taking over,” Chism said. “That has been helpful. Jes used to be my coach when I went to Milligan, so we had a really good, solid foundation.”
In addition to Sutton’s guidance, Chism said the other coaches at Milligan as well as a few swim coaches from around the area have provided a lot of helpful hints on everything from recruiting to the finer points of running swim meets.
As far as building a firm foundation for the future of the program, the Buffs helped out last weekend at the Appalachian Swimming Conference meet by posting several qualifying times for the upcoming national meet. Grant Callahan led the way with a third-place finish in the 50 freestyle, posting a personal best tie of 57.62 seconds.