The Radford women’s basketball team is the defending Big South champion.

Just don’t tell coach Mike McGuire that.

“There’s a lot of the girls [on the team] that have not done it yet,” McGuire said. “We’re not really talking about last year. Last year’s over. We’re not defending anything.”

Well, the Highlanders did sweep the Big South regular-season and tournament titles last season, when they advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

“You don’t want to settle for one championship. You always want to have the goal to get the next one,” said center Sydney Nunley, one of three returning starters.

The Highlanders must replace the top two scorers from last year’s squad, which went 26-7 overall and 17-1 in league play. But they have been picked to again win the Big South in the league’s preseason coaches poll.

“We have all the ingredients to be there at the end,” McGuire said.

McGuire is blending eight returning players with six newcomers, including two junior-college transfers and four freshmen.

“I’m really energized by this challenge,” said McGuire, who is entering his seventh season at the school. “Trying to mesh everybody to build this team while managing the same expectations is something I’m taking personally because I want this program to be in this position and stay in this position for years to come.

“The question mark right now is the game experience. … Can we handle pressure situations? How well can we handle adversity?”

Radford must replace two All-Big South first-team picks — guard Destinee Walker and power forward Lydia Rivers.

Walker averaged 14.0 points as a senior last year.

“We don’t have a Destinee Walker on the perimeter at 5-11 that can really get her shot at any time against anybody,” McGuire said.

Rivers averaged 12.2 points and a league-high 10.3 rebounds. Rivers, who was the Big South tournament most valuable player, has joined Virginia Tech as a graduate transfer.

“Lydia was probably the best rebounder I’ve ever coached,” McGuire said.

Radford also lost backup Savannah Felgemacher (9.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg), who opted to graduate and not use her final season of eligibility.

The Highlanders will open the season Friday at Vanderbilt. The nonleague schedule also includes tests against West Virginia, Ohio State and Alabama.

McGuire crafted the schedule a year ago, when he thought Rivers and Felgemacher would be returning.

“There’s going to be probably some tough lessons, just because of our schedule,” McGuire said. “Our schedule’s very demanding for this kind of team.

“But that’s OK. That’s going to help these young kids grow up.”

Radford led the league in rebounding margin last year. But can the team remain a force on the boards without Rivers?

“Even though we lost Lydia, I believe we’re going to make up for it with other people,” Nunley said.

The 6-foot-4 Nunley returns at center after making the All-Big South second team last year. She averaged 10.1 points and ranked second in the league with an average of 9.7 rebounds as a fourth-year junior last season. Nunley has graduated from Radford but decided to stick around as a graduate student.

She will be the focal point of the offense.

“We’re going to have to really play inside out probably more than we have the last couple years,” McGuire said. “We’re going to need to try to feed Sydney as much as we can.”

The other returning starters are senior guards Khiana Johnson (11.0 ppg, a total of 118 assists) and Jen Falconer (3.2 ppg). They will see time at both point guard and off-guard.

“Khiana’s got to accept a different role,” McGuire said. “She’s been a good playmaker for us. Now she’s got to become a go-to [scorer]. … Khiana’s probably going to have to take more shots than she’s ever taken.”

Junior-college transfer Aiden Rainford will take over for Rivers at power forward. The third-year sophomore played for Canada’s under-16 and under-17 national teams.

“She’s not going to be as athletic as what we had with Lydia, but the skill set and her basketball IQ is very high,” McGuire said.

Amele Ngwafang, a sophomore, will also see time at power forward.

Junior small forward Tina Lindenfeld will succeed Walker on the wing. Sophomores Bryonna McClean and Makaila Wilson will also be used there.

Junior-college transfer Ariel Williams will be a backup at point guard and off-guard.

Radford led the league in scoring defense last year (55.1 ppg), but McGuire isn’t sure how stingy this year’s squad will be.

“Defensively, … we’re not quite there right now,” McGuire said. “I think early, we’re probably going to have to look to score a little bit more points than what we’ve done — because we haven’t been very potent the last two or three years offensively.”

All three of McGuire’s assistant coaches moved on after last year, so he not only has six new players but a new staff as well.

Big South women’s basketball teams will each play 20 league games, up from 18 last year.

Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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