All-Time Great Programs Meet Wednesday

Few women’s college basketball programs can match the traditions at Arkansas Tech University and West Texas A&M University. 

On Wednesday, Dec. 29, the nationally fifth-ranked Golden Suns (9-1) and the nationally 22nd-ranked Lady Buffs (6-3) will be matched against each other in a collision between two of the top four programs in NCAA Division II history.

Tip-off is set for 5:30 p.m. at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville. Tickets will go on sale at 4:30 p.m. at the coliseum ticket office. Those with a valid Tech identification card will be admitted free.

Arkansas Tech has an all-time winning percentage of .789, second-best among the nearly 300 institutions that sponsor NCAA Division II women’s basketball.

West Texas A&M’s .780 all-time winning percentage is fourth-best in NCAA Division II history.

Combined, the Golden Suns and the Lady Buffs have made 39 postseason national tournament appearances. Arkansas Tech has been to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight three times since 1998; West Texas A&M has reached that lofty plateau four times since 1987.

The current incarnations of the Golden Suns and the Lady Buffs are worthy of the legacies they inherited.

Arkansas Tech entered the 2010-11 season ranked No. 1 in the nation and the preseason favorite to win the Gulf South Conference West Division. West Texas A&M was seventh in the preseason national poll and the pick to win the Lone Star Conference South Division.

Those expectations were built in part on the fact that the Golden Suns and the Lady Buffs both feature one of the top post players in the country.

Arkansas Tech’s Natalia Santos is ranked second in the GSC in scoring (19.6 points per game) and first in the GSC in field goal percentage (.607).

West Texas A&M’s Jamie Simmons is fourth in the LSC in both scoring (18.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.9 per game). Like Santos, she leads her conference in field goal percentage (.600).

“They’re both really good on the low block, they’re both strong and they’re both good rebounders,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Dave Wilbers when asked to compare Santos and Simmons. “Simmons has a lot of post moves, she does a good job running the floor and she’s very athletic. Both of them are very good players.”

The Golden Suns suffered an early loss at West Alabama, but they have bounced back with five consecutive wins. Arkansas Tech, the defending NCAA Division II South Region champion, has been ranked among the top 10 of NCAA Division II in 14 consecutive polls. 

West Texas A&M was dealt an early setback that was much more significant than losing a game. Joni Unruh, the preseason LSC South Division player of the year, was lost for the season after just three games because of a knee injury.

Unruh, who made 102 steals last season, was averaging 14.7 points per game in 2010-11 at the time of her injury.

Casey Land is among the Lady Buffs who have stepped forward to pick up the slack. A freshman from Canyon, Texas, Land averages 7.3 points and 3.8 assists per game. She is second in the Lone Star Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7-to-1).

West Texas A&M is 4-2 since losing Unruh. Land has averaged 13.3 points per game in those four wins, but just 1.5 points per game in the two losses.

“(Land) can handle the basketball and she shoots it very well,” said Wilbers. “She’s from one of the best high school programs in the country, and she’s a tough match-up for us. (West Texas A&M’s) guards are very athletic. They have a combination of size and athleticism that we haven’t seen so far this season.

“They really just have a good, balanced team,” continued Wilbers. “It’s a team that looks a lot like us. They have good post players, athletic guards, 3-point shooters and players who can drive to the basket. It will be a tough match-up for both teams. It’s a game that if you can win it, it will be good down the road for NCAA Tournament selections and regional rankings. It’ll be a good battle.”

The Suns will carry a 25-game home winning streak into Wednesday’s contest. It is the fourth-longest such streak in Arkansas Tech women’s basketball history.

Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM will broadcast the game. Live video and audio streams will be available at www.athletics.atu.edu.

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