By Thomas Sellers Jr.
MARTIN — UT Martin Lady Skyhawk Basketball has enjoyed a golden era in the past four years.
Led by the duo of Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome on the court, Kevin McMillan’s program has made four NCAA Women’s Tournament appearances in a row coinciding with four Ohio Valley Conference Tournament titles.
In May Butler graduated as the all-time leading scorer in the program’s history. Right beside her at the graduation was Newsome leaving Martin as the No. 2 scorer all-time and No. 1 in assists.
McMillan was left with a challenge — keep the program atop the league with a new approach. The Lady Skyhawks were guard-oriented in recent seasons.
Coming into the 2014-15 season, McMillan saw he had talent standing more than 6-feet tall — Tipton County product Ashia Jones and Millington Central High School graduate Tiara Caldwell.
A tough out-of-league schedule got the interior duo ready for OVC play. And in January the Lady Skyhawks got off to an unbeaten start in conference.
“We knew we had to hold down the court for Butler and Newsome,” Jones said. “There were more new people coming in. So with the older people we had to hold the court down. Coach didn’t necessarily tell us to do that. We knew coming into the season we had to.”
The team has adjusted to the new style of play featuring Jones and Caldwell. Prior to arriving in Martin, Jones made stops at Tipton County schools Brighton and Covington. She led the Lady Chargers to the State Tournament.
That same year, Caldwell was the MVP of District 14-3A leading the Millington Lady Trojans to the district title. Caldwell carried the torch in high school passed to her by Newsome. And she followed in Newsome’s footsteps attending UT Martin.
Caldwell admitted her freshman year had some growing pains.
“We’ve grown so much from Coach hollering at us and we crying,” she said. “Today if Coach is hollering at us, we stand up. He’s like ‘What’s going on?’ We’re stepping up in all phases of the game more and more everyday.”
In a Jan. 17 home contest against Jacksonville State, Caldwell was the second leading scorer with 14 points. The leader that night in the scoring column was Jones with 30 points.
This season Jones has racked up several OVC honors. For example, she was named Adidas Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Week, College Sports Madness Mid-Major Player of the Week and Tennessee Sportswriters Association Player of the Week for the second consecutive week in the next-to-last week in January
Jones said a lot of her success coincides with the play of Caldwell in the low block.
“I can go to the high post area and come out because I know Tiara is down there,” she noted. “I don’t have to be down there fighting. Or I could just give the ball to her or she can pass it back out to me. We compliment each other.”
Caldwell said Jones draws enough attention to create space for her to operate in the low post for baskets.
“I know if I get in trouble, all I have to do is look for Ashia,” she said. “She’s either going to be wide open or working to get open. We’re like peanut butter and jelly.”
The recipe McMillan has been cooking up is working making the Lady Skyhawks the favorites heading into the OVC Tournament.
Jones and Caldwell have to continue their solid play to make it five in row for UT Martin in Nashville. Personally the girls have won back-to-back years with high school success and their freshman year run.
“It feels great to know you can continue to win and win and win to get championships,” Caldwell said. “I want to get championship back to back to back. I want a 5-peat when I’m done here.
“We’re going to keep going hard,” she added. “We’re going to keep grasp of what Jasmine and Butler left behind. We’re going to keep winning.”
Jones said the Martin program is at an elite level and they will keep it there.
“I want my 5 peat too,” she concluded. “I’m going to always hold it down for Tipton County. You know I came from Brighton first. I’m a Cardinal at heart. But I won at Covington, so I’m a Charger too. We’re going to continue it all the way through our senior year. So that’s 7, we’re ready