Elite Eight Here We Come: Suns Win Regional

Arkansas Tech is the champion of NCAA Division II South Region women’s basketball for a second consecutive year.

The nationally top-ranked Golden Suns (30-2) used a quick start and 64 percent shooting from the field to key an 85-77 victory over the nationally fourth-ranked Delta State Lady Statesmen in the NCAA Division II Tournament South Regional championship game on Monday night.

A crowd of 3,125 — the second-largest crowd to ever see a Golden Suns’ game at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville — watched Arkansas Tech celebrate its fourth NCAA Division II South Region women’s basketball crown since 1998.

Arkansas Tech also clinched its second consecutive 30-win season and the eighth 30-win season in the 34-year history of its women’s basketball program.

The Golden Suns have won 16 consecutive games overall and 36 straight games at Tucker Coliseum. It is the second-longest home winning streak in Arkansas Tech women’s basketball history.

The Golden Suns advance to face nationally third-ranked Michigan Tech in the national quarterfinals at the NCAA Elite Eight on Tuesday, March 22. Tip-off at the St. Joseph Civic Center in St. Joseph, Mo., is set for 6 p.m.

“We have played at a very high level for the last six or seven games,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Dave Wilbers, who improved to 106-20 in four years with the Golden Suns. “We’re playing fast, and we’re playing hard. I thought our defense was just outstanding.”

Arkansas Tech’s Natalia Santos was beyond outstanding early on. She scored 10 consecutive points over a span of 3:13 to give the Golden Suns a 14-2 lead with 14:50 left in the first half.

Arkansas Tech made eight of its first nine field goal tries, while Delta State missed its first nine tries from the field. The Suns built a 23-4 edge with 9:46 to go before the intermission.

The Arkansas Tech advantage dwindled down to nine points with 2:06 left in the half, but Jenny Vining reclaimed the momentum for the Golden Suns by making a 7-footer from the right baseline with 3.2 seconds showing. Arkansas Tech led 39-28 at halftime.

Delta State (28-4) made its inevitable run and pulled within 64-57 on Shameka Russell’s pair of free throws at the 8:07 mark of the second half.

A pair of free throws by Jessica Weatherford and one from Katie Horsman rebuilt Arkansas Tech’s lead to 67-57.

That set the stage for the back-breaker, which was delivered by Vining on a 3-pointer with 6:42 left. It was one of 25 3-pointers that Vining has made so far during the 2011 postseason.

The Golden Suns led 70-57 after Vining’s trey, and the outcome was never in doubt down the stretch.

Santos finished with 25 points and six rebounds. Vining had 17 points, Jessica Weatherford notched 16 points and eight rebounds and Laura Beth Anderson had 11 points and eight assists for Arkansas Tech.

Bug Cooper and Sheena Johnson paced Delta State with 16 points apiece. Shameka Russell (15 points) and Moe Bell (11 points) were next for the Lady Statesmen.

Delta State All-American Veronica Walker was limited to five field goal tries. She made three of them and finished with 10 points and nine rebounds.

Walker and Cooper represented the Lady Statesmen on the NCAA Division II South Regional all-tournament team. Tech’s Santos and Anderson were also voted to that honor squad, while Vining was named the regional’s most outstanding player.