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Wayne Cavadi | | January 4, 2017

North Georgia off to a hot start atop the Peach Belt

  Kelsey Hutchins knocks down one of her PBC best 19.2 points per game for UNG.

The North Georgia Nighthawks women’s basketball squad closed out the 2016 calendar year on a high note. They are off to a 10-1 start, tied for the second best start in program history since jumping to Division II ranks back in 2005. Tied atop the Peach Belt Conference, this current rendition of the Nighthawks trails only the 2013-2014 team that started 13-1 en route to UNG’s lone NCAA postseason appearance.

Fresh off of a 17-12 season, one which saw them finish below .500 in the Peach Belt Conference, UNG was projected to finish sixth in the PBC this season. Several new faces, especially in the starting lineup, have quickly changed those perceptions, as the Nighthawks find themselves in the national rankings, sitting at No. 21.

RELATED: Updated WBCA Coaches Poll rankings

“Coming into this year, I knew our new teammates would outnumber our returners so I felt it was very important that everyone was on the same page,” senior forward Kelsey Hutchins said. “We had four transfers join us, and I had heard all good things about them. Three of the four were six-feet plus so I knew we would be tall this year. Our four freshmen came in ready to get to work and adjusted quickly to the pace from high school to college. But all summer we worked out as a team and really gelled together and became really close really fast.”

A few of those transfers, like Deana Blankinship — who transferred in after winning a conference championship with Georgia Highlands — and Amber Skidgel — who transferred to UNG from Georgia — have made an immediate impact in their starting rotation. Skidgel is averaging 11.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a night, while Blankinship is scoring eight points and grabbing 5.8 rebounds a night.

“I believe everyone has had an impact on this team from the very beginning,” Hutchins said. “We continue to push each other in practice to make us better as individuals and as a team. But with Amber [Skidgel] and Jordan [Livesay]’s ability to shoot well from the outside, it helps spread the defense out and open up the inside for the post for Deana [Blankinship], Mackenzie [Darrah] and I, and we open up those same opportunities for the shooters as well."

The Nighthawks starting rotation is deep. They have seven players they rotate in and out of the starting lineup on a nightly basis, giving opposing teams fresh looks at the UNG team. Five members of that starting rotation average more than eight points a night and pull down more than four rebounds a game as well. Each one of them is capable of carrying the load any night of the week. They are so deep that Hutchins — their most prolific scorer for the past two seasons now — can sometimes serve a reserve role, coming off the bench to provide an in-game spark.

“I have played both roles both last year and this year," Hutchins sais. "I am willing to play whatever role coach thinks is best for our team and myself."

Hutchins and her fellow senior Jordan Livesay — the two mainstays from last year’s squad — are having particularly strong seasons as the newfound leaders of this team. Livesay is averaging 13.5 points a night with a team best 7.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game. Hutchins — already the recipient of a PBC Player of the Week Award — is leading the entire conference in scoring with 19.2 points a game, scoring her 1,000th point earlier this season.

UNG is now set to enter the heart of their PBC schedule. This is a conference that now suddenly finds themselves with three teams amid the nation’s Top 25. Columbus State is sitting at No. 19, while Clayton State sits at No. 23. After making their debut at No. 24 last week — the first time that UNG has been ranked since March of 2014 — they jumped three spots in this week’s WBCA Coaches Poll.

“The PBC is a really tough conference and has really good and skilled players so it doesn't surprise me that there are other nationally ranked teams from the Peach Belt,” Hutchins said. “We just need to continue to play team basketball and take it one game at a time.”

Last season, the Nighthawks started off 10-2, and once they entered conference play, the tides of their season changed. This year, Livesay and Hutchins hope they can do something this team has not been known for since becoming a DII program. They hope that their season — and careers — end with the program’s second NCAA postseason birth.

“Going to the NCAA tournament would be a very exciting way to end our senior year,” Hutchins said. “It’s a very bitter sweet moment to think about, but that's the plan. I believe our teammates are all on the same page and have the same goal.”

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