EDWARDSVILLE — The wait is almost over for Paula Buscher and her first Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville women's basketball team.
Hired in June to take over the coaching duties at SIUE after 12 years at Bradley University in Peoria, Buscher will unveil the 2012-13 Cougars on Sunday at Indiana/Purdue at Fort Wayne at 2 p.m.
The game is the first in a stretch that will find SIUE playing four games in eight days, including a much-anticipated home opener at the Vadalabene Center on Nov. 17 against perennial national contender Purdue.
Put simply, the Cougars, who were 18-12 and placed third in the Ohio Valley Conference last season, will be put to the test early under their first-year coach.
"Our schedule, especially our nonconference schedule has a lot of games in a short period of time against some extremely talented opponents. But that's what you play for,'' Buscher said. "We know what's coming at us and we're excited to take the floor and get going.''
Armed with a talented senior group which is led by one of the top players in the OVC in Collinsville graduate Raven Berry, Buscher makes the move 180 miles south after a successful tenure with her hometown Braves.
The all-time leader in Bradley University history with 167 career coaching victories -- including 91 in the MVC -- Buscher coached four first-team, all-conference players and her 2008-09 Braves squad set a school record with 21 wins.
Now she takes over a Cougars program which is on the rise.
"A lot of it is simply being in the right place at the right time. I believe this is the right place and this is the right time for us,'' Buscher said. "The response I've received has just been tremendous from everyone. The community, the administration, the professors, everybody. I'm just really excited about this opportunity and this basketball program.''
Buscher, who takes over for Amanda Levens, who left to become the associate head coach at Arizona State University, said that taking over the Cougars program has gone well.
And while their will be changes in style of play, there will also be similarities.
"There were some things that I've watched on film, that they did well last year. We're going to keep some things in and we'll change some other things around,'' Buscher said.
The Cougars will be an up-tempo team.
"I like a quick pace to the game. But not a frantic pace to the game,'' Buscher said. "I like to play as fast as we can under control. I like to play a fast-paced game, but it's all dictated by your defense.
"If you play great defense, get out into the passing lanes and get steals, that leads to transition. That's a faced-paced offense. Our defense will dictate how quickly we allow ourselves to play on the offensive end.''
Leading the way for SIUE will be the 6-foot-1 Berry. A second team All-OVC selection a year ago, Berry averaged 11.7 points and 9.8 rebounds a year ago. Currently third on the all-time SIUE rebound list with 731, Berry has 1,049 points in her first three years.
"Raven is a force inside, Buscher said. "She not only wants to leave that personal legacy for what she has done for SIU-Edwardsville women's basketball, but I think what is even more important to her is that she's a true team player; a true competitor.''
Two other seniors -- point guard Courtney Kenner (St. Louis) and forward Michaela Herrod (Alton) also return to the starting lineup. Herrod averaged 9.6 points and eight rebounds, while Kenner, an Incarnate Word Academy graduate, average six points and four assists.
Also back is 5-7 junior guard Jazmin Hill. An Althoff graduate, Hill averaged 9.6 points a year ago and has 146 3-point baskets during her first two years with the Cougars.
Hill has been slowed somewhat by nagging injuries in the preseason.
"The thing that impresses me about Jazmin is her knowledge of the game,'' Buscher said. "She's been a little banged up in the past, nothing major, but we're just trying to get her healthy. She's a great shooter and she's really picked it up on the defensive end.''
Other key returnees include 6-foot senior Kiara Conner, of Markham, 5-8 junior Valerie Finnin, of Mokena, and 5-9 sophomore Tierney Austin, of Rockford.
Two freshmen -- Coco Moore (5-7) from Indianapolis and 5-10 Jessie Wendt, of Teutopolis -- are also expected to compete for playing time.
There is one void from last year. Katie Hempen, the former Highland player and 2011-12 OVC Freshman of the Year, has transferred to Arizona State University.
Buscher thinks that her first SIUE team could contend for the OVC title.
"The keys for us will be staying healthy and understanding the long journey that a basketball season is,'' Buscher said. "You can't get too high or too low, you've just got to keep that focus going.
"You've got to go out everyday looking to improve. I think that's when the results will happen.''
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or email@example.com