As the calendar turns to 2014, so, too, the Hatters' schedule shifts from non-conference action to conference play.
The Stetson University women's basketball team (8-4) will visit Florida Gulf Coast (6-6) in the Atlantic Sun Conference opener for both teams Saturday night at Alicio Arena in Fort Myers. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:03 p.m. in a game broadcast live on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN App for mobile devices.
"I think we have done really well in the first half of the season, and now we have to get down to crunch time," junior Jama Sharp said. "Everyone starts 0-0, everything is new, and every team has new players. It's exciting and we are all so determined. We just have to take it game-by-game."
The Hatters enter league play on a hot streak, having won three straight and five out of six in the month of December. Stetson has averaged 87.0 points per game over the past six games, shooting 48% from the floor and 39% from behind the arc during that stretch.
"I thought the non-conference schedule was hard and we did much better than I thought we would," head coach Lynn Bria said. "It really helped prepare us for conference play. I still don't think we are where we need to be, but we improved a lot faster than I thought we would. I am pleased with the progress."
Having won the Atlantic Sun Championship last season and owning a league-best eight wins this season, the Hatters can be sure other teams in the conference will be looking forward to their match-ups with Stetson. In the double round-robin format, the Hatters will face each conference opponent twice, once at home and once on the road.
"I think there is target on our back since we are the defending champs," said senior Sasha Sims, who leads the league with an 18.6 scoring average. "I also just think because we are Stetson and people know that we like to compete, we get everybody's best game, it doesn't matter who we are playing. So we have to bring our 'A' game every day."
Stetson leads the conference in several offensive categories, including scoring (79.2), field goal pct. (.448), and assists (15.6). Defensively the Hatters rank among the best shot-blocking teams in the nation (no. 12), led by freshman Amber Porter's 47 swats. However, Bria would like to see the defense improve overall, especially in the area of rebounding.
"We just have to do a better job of pursuing the basketball," Bria said. "I think there are times we are in pretty good position, but we just don't get the ball. It's something we are going to continue to work on and emphasize."
Stetson will open conference play against a familiar foe as the Hatters and Eagles have met six times in the past two years, including in each of the past two A-Sun championship games. The two teams will not meet again until the final game of the regular season, Mar. 8 in DeLand.
The Hatters will also be looking to build upon an impressive league record of 39-17 over the past three seasons, including a 14-4 mark last year.
"The games that we have already played have helped us prepare for conference," Sims said about the Hatters' non-conference slate. "It has made us tough and let us see where we are. Right now, this is what we have been preparing for all this time, so it is time to see what we are made of."
Broadcast Note: ESPN3 and WatchESPN is available to fans who receive ESPN's linear networks as part of their video subscription from Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Verizon FiOS TV, Comcast Xfinity TV or Midcontinent Communications, Cablevision or Cox Communications. The app is available free to download for Android devices from the Google Play store and Amazon Appstore and for Apple devices from the App Store, as well as online via WatchESPN.com.
WSBB will also broadcast the game on AM1230 New Smyrna Beach, AM1490 DeLand, and on myam1230.com.