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Golden Suns Ready for NCAA Opener Friday

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Teams with just three returning players from the previous season typically do not end up as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

But Arkansas Tech does not have a typical women’s basketball program, and this group of Golden Suns is far different from the average college basketball team. Nationally fourth-ranked Arkansas Tech (28-2) will begin the pursuit of its third NCAA Division II South Region women’s basketball title since 1998 on Friday in an opening-round game against the Benedict College Lady Tigers (22-8). Tip-off at Tucker Coliseum is set for 6:30 p.m. Tickets go on sale at 12:30 p.m. Friday at the Tucker Coliseum ticket office. Golden Suns head coach Dave Wilbers brought in 14 new players following the 2008-09 season. The recruiting class was a balanced mix of three NCAA Division I transfers, three junior college transfers and eight first-time freshmen. Players from all three categories have contributed mightily in 2009-10 as Arkansas Tech has won the Gulf South Conference West Division title, captured the GSC Tournament championship and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. “You could tell from the very beginning that our team had good chemistry,” said Wilbers as he looked back on the season to this point. “There was a lot of excitement and energy on our team from day one, and it really continued throughout the season. This group is a bunch of winners and they understand what it takes to win basketball games.” The Suns clinched their No. 1 seed by defeating Delta State 75-73 in double overtime in the GSC Tournament championship game last Sunday. The Lady Statesmen are the No. 2 seed in this week’s NCAA South Regional, but this regional is about far more than just Tech and Delta State. Half of the field for the regional in Russellville is ranked nationally --- No. 4 Arkansas Tech, No. 8 Delta State, No. 10 Fort Valley State and No. 17 Tampa. “It is a loaded regional,” said Wilbers. “There are four teams ranked in the national poll, but there are a couple of others here that I have been voting in the top 25 all season long. It really comes down to who is going to put three games together, who is going to play defense and who is going to hit shots? That is the team that will win this regional.” Benedict College is the 2010 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament champion. The Lady Tigers earned the automatic bid from the SIAC with a 72-67 victory over Stillman in their conference tournament title game last Saturday. Brittany Jackson led Benedict to that victory with 23 points and 14 rebounds, but it would be folly to identify one or two key players among the Lady Tigers. That’s because eight different Benedict players average between 12.2 points and 5.1 points per game. The Lady Tigers have had 10 different players lead them in scoring in a game this season. “(Benedict) is a very tough team to scout,” said Wilbers. “They play a style that we haven’t seen this season. They run up and down the floor, and they pressure you for 40 minutes. They’ll trap you in the backcourt; they’ll trap you in the frontcourt. It should be a fun game, and I believe it will be a high-scoring game.” Arkansas Tech is led by All-South Region performers Jenny Vining and Natalia Santos and GSC West Division freshman of the year Jessica Weatherford. Vining averages 18.1 points per game and ranks third in the nation in 3-point field goals made per game (3.6). Her 109 3-pointers this season are a Golden Suns single-season record. Santos scores 16.3 points and pulls down 8.1 rebounds per night. She is 12th in the nation in field goal percentage (.561). Weatherford (12.2 points per game) gives Tech three players averaging double figures in scoring. She also grabs 5.9 rebounds per game and makes 81.7 percent of her free throws. The winner of the Tech-Benedict game advances to the regional semifinals at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

The other team in that regional semifinal will be from the Sunshine State Conference. Tampa and Barry will decide which one of them will advance when they clash in a 9 p.m. game at Tucker Coliseum on Friday night.