EDINBURG The holiday season approaching means college hoops is back, and the UTRGV women’s basketball team is ready to hit the hardwood for Year 6 under head coach Lane Lord.

This year’s squad features 10 returners, six new additions and a mindset focused on improving on last season’s 12-18 record and competing for a spot at the top of the Western Athletic Conference.

The Vaqueros have an exhibition game against St. Mary’s at 2 p.m. today at the UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg and officially open the season against Texas Tech at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Lubbock.

“We’re a much more athletic team than we were a year ago. We got more quickness and we have good size in the post as well,” Lord said. “We’re excited about that, and we have experience. We have 10 guys back from last year, and in this day and age is really good, so we’re excited about that. We expect to flip-flop the wins and losses, and get back to the left side instead of the right side, because we have been battle-tested in this league.”

The Vaqueros bring back four starters in junior guard Iyana “Yaya” Dorsey, senior guard Mele Kailahi, junior forward Deborah Ogayemi and sophomore forward Charlotte O’Keefe, who are set to lead the charge.

Dorsey is among the top scorers in the WAC, earning second-team all-conference honors a season ago while averaging 16 points a game.

“I think this year we’re going to be able to play fast. I think us pushing the ball is where we’re really good at scoring,” Dorsey said. “I’ve seen it in practice, I’ve seen it in our exhibition games, when we push the ball we do great. That’s the game plan to continue growing on.”

Kailahi (9.2 points per game, .377% from 3) is a proven scoring threat and knockdown shooter from the perimeter, and Ogayemi (9.4 ppg, 7.5 rebounds) and O’Keefe (6.2 ppg, 7.3 rebounds) provide size inside to throw the ball down low or come up with a defensive stop.

“I think I did good things last year and I think there’s a lot of areas for improvement as well, so I spent the offseason working on those areas and trying to get better,” O’Keefe said.

UTRGV women’s basketball practice at the field house on Thursday, November 2, 2023 in Edinburg . (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Forward Ashton McCory, guard Aaliyah McMillan, forward Zariah Sango, guard Arianna Sturdivant, guard Mariam Traore and guard Tierra Trotter round out the returning players and will play key roles for the Vaqueros. Traore will miss the season due to injury, however.

The newest Vaqueros include junior Central Missouri transfer and forward Kade Hackerott, freshman guard Jayda Holiman, freshman guard Ja’Shelle Johnson, freshman guard Taylor Meyners, Tarleton transfer and post Nyajah Mitchels and junior St. Mary’s transfer Faith Phillips. Lord expects them to be able to contribute right away and carve out roles down the line.

The Vaqueros are projected to finish eighth out of 11 teams in conference, according to the WAC women’s basketball preseason coaches poll. While the team does take note of the preseason poll, it also provides motivation for this year’s group to prove people wrong.

“50% of us want to pay attention to that, because in the back of our minds that’s something that will push us. That’s something that will push us and will motivate us,” Dorsey said. “We see that other people don’t believe in us , so we have to have each other’s back and believe in each other, and the other 50% is not worrying about it because we know we have each other’s back and we know we’re going to get to where we need to be.”

UTRGV’s non-conference schedule includes road games against Texas State and Incarnate Word, and a big-time matchup against the Texas Longhorns on Dec. 20 at Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg.

“It’s a big-time event for the Valley. They’ve come down once before, about six years ago, and it’s really unheard of to have a Power 5 come to a mid-major in the non-conference season, so we’re very blessed to have Texas come down,” Lord said. They’re coming to the Valley and they’ll be top 15 in the country when they get here, and it’s going to be an exciting night. I think it’s going to be a special night for our team, our Valley and our fanbase.”

Tickets for UTRGV women’s basketball games can be purchased at GoUTRGV.com/Tickets.

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