FORT SMITH, Ark. – A new era will begin for the UAFS women’s basketball team when the Lady Lions host the Evangel University Crusaders in a preseason exhibition game on Tuesday at the Stubblefield Center.

For the first time in 30 years, the Lady Lions will take the court with a new head coach.

Former Mississippi State assistant coach and former Trinity Valley head coach Elena Lovato will begin her first season as Lady Lions head coach. She succeeds former Lady Lions coach Louis Whorton, who retired this past spring after 30 seasons.

“It means a lot,” said Lovato about coaching her first game as Lady Lions coach. “It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been able to lead my own program, but more than that, it’s an exciting time for us to showcase what we have and what the new product looks like.”

Tipoff will be 6 p.m. at the Stubblefield Center. The game will be broadcast on KHGG-FM 103.1.

It will be the seventh time UAFS and Evangel have played each other and the fourth time in exhibition play. UAFS is 6-0 against Evangel all-time, including exhibition wins the past three seasons.

The Lady Lions will feature a new look this season. Only three players return from last year’s team that finished 21-9 overall and 12-6 in the Heartland Conference and advanced to the semifinals of the Heartland Conference Tournament – senior guard Sydney Franklin from West Fork, Ark.; senior guard Maya Perry from Huntsville, Texas; and junior guard Olivia Hanson from Fort Smith.

Franklin averaged 6.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game this past season. Perry averaged 4.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, and Hanson averaged 5.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and one assist per game.

Those returning players will be joined by seven newcomers – freshman guard Micayla Haynes from Guthrie, Okla.; freshman guard Gabryella Castillo from Houston, Texas; freshman forward Tamera Gulley from Richmond, Texas; junior guard Anna Rogers from Greenland, Ark.; junior guard Zhanesha Dickerson from St. Louis, Mo.; junior forward Tayla Taylor from Marlin, Texas; and senior forward Jazmine Spears from New Albany, Miss.

The Lady Lions began preseason practice a little more than a week ago, and Lovato is eager to see her team in action.

“We are nine practices in, and I want to see all of my girls compete, be tough and aggressive, take advantage of numbers offensively and focus on getting big stops,” Lovato said.

Evangel was picked ninth in the recently-released NAIA’s Heart of America Conference Coaches’ Preseason Poll.

The Crusaders finished 9-19 overall this past season and 8-14 in the Heart of America Conference, but they return six seniors from last season’s team and their top three leading scorers – senior center Allison Swanson from Omaha, Neb., senior guard Taylor Longley from League City, Texas; and junior guard Alison Jarrell from Dexter, Mo.

Swanson averaged 11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 blocks per game this past season. Longley averaged 9.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and one steal per game, and Jarrell averaged 9.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game.

It will be the first of two exhibition games for the Lady Lions, who will play an exhibition game at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, against Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.

UAFS will begin the regular season on Nov. 11-12 when it competes in the Conference Challenge hosted by Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo. The Lady Lions will play Colorado School of Mines at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11, and will play host Colorado Christian at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12.

It will be the only exhibition game for Evangel, which begins regular-season play on Saturday, when it hosts Haskell Indian Nations University at 6 p.m. at the Ashcroft Center in Springfield, Mo.