Key Moment for Suns Came in Late January

Every championship team has a defining moment — the moment when it goes from very good to great. For the 2010 NCAA Division II South Region champion Arkansas Tech Golden Suns, the moment they made that leap came over two nights in January. Arkansas Tech was already 16-0 and ranked ninth in the nation when it arrived in Arkadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 21, for a Gulf South Conference game against Ouachita Baptist. The Suns had rarely been tested in their first 16 games. Tech had won 14 of them by 15 points or more.

That was sure to change as they entered Bill Vining Arena to face a Ouachita Baptist team that had reached the NCAA Division II South Region championship game in 2009.

Tech led by as many as 12 points early in the second half, but the Lady Tigers rallied to cut the Golden Suns’ lead to 70-69 on a Melissa Richardson 3-pointer with 3:54 remaining.

Tech freshman forward Jessica Weatherford, playing close to her home in Bonnerdale and with a large cheering section on hand, came through with back-to-back baskets for Tech to make it 74-69 with 2:35 left.

From there, it was all about defense. The Golden Suns held Ouachita to one made field goal over the final 3:54 and Tech’s Shaquilah Davis made a key defensive stop in the waning seconds to prevent a tying 3-pointer.

“I’d say we responded in a great way,” said Golden Suns head coach Dave Wilbers after the 78-74 win. “We won a game on the road when it got tight. We missed a lot of free throws, but we made some at the end. What I liked tonight is a lot of our girls wanted the basketball. They were running around, chasing rebounds and loose balls. At the end, we had some time outs, thank goodness, so we could set our offense and defense. This was a great atmosphere and a great win for us.”

The win kept the Golden Suns undefeated as they prepared to face their arch rival — the Delta State Lady Statesmen — for the first time this season. Delta State had won 12 consecutive games against Arkansas Tech. The Suns had not defeated the Lady Statesmen since Jan. 29, 2005. Early on in that game at Tucker Coliseum on Saturday, Jan. 23, it looked like it was the same song, 13th verse.

Delta State jumped out to a 21-11 lead with 6:43 left in the first half, and many Tech patrons started to feel like they had seen this story before. But this was a different group of Golden Suns. The Lady Statesmen had used physical strength, toughness and intimidation to batter and bruise Tech — figuratively and literally — for five years. This time, it would be different. This season, it would be different. The Suns cut their deficit to 25-21 by halftime. Weatherford scored a lay-up with 17:28 left in the second half to give Tech its first lead of the game at 28-27. Delta State went back in front 46-45 on a Veronica Walker lay-up at the 6:35 mark, but that proved to be the Lady Statesmen’s final made field goal of the game. The Suns outscored Delta State 11-1 over the final 6:23 to end their drought against the Lady Statesmen and announce themselves as a serious contender in the NCAA Division II South Region. And while the wins over Ouachita Baptist and Delta State were certainly beneficial in the Gulf South Conference West Division race and from a pure confidence standpoint, those two games were a turning point for another reason. Jenny Vining and Natalia Santos had already established themselves as consistent scoring threats.

Laura Beth Anderson and Ashley Chisum had proven themselves as reliable ball handlers and defenders.

Several others — including Davis, Anna Baran, Katie Horsman and Johnna tenBerge — had settled into important roles.

The one thing that was missing before Jan. 21 was a consistent third scorer to go with Vining and Santos.

Those wins over OBU and DSU signaled Weatherford’s arrival in that role.

Weatherford had a career-high totals of 23 points and 11 rebounds against Ouachita. Less than 48 hours later, she posted 24 points and 11 rebounds against Delta.

She now has seven games with 20 or more points this season, including five such performances in Tech’s last eight outings.

Weatherford averaged 19.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game during the NCAA Division II South Regional to earn most outstanding player honors during the three-game event.

“She has gotten better and better as the year has gone on,” said Wilbers of Weatherford. “Jessica has become a better athlete. You see her jumping over people and pulling down rebounds now.”

The inside combo of Santos and Weatherford, the outside threat of Vining and the Golden Suns’ ability to effectively utilize a variety of defenses could make them a tough out at the NCAA Elite Eight when it begins on Tuesday in St. Joseph, Mo.

Nationally fourth-ranked Arkansas Tech (31-2) will face nationally second-ranked Franklin Pierce (31-1) at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in the national quarterfinals. A live video Web broadcast of the game will be streamed over Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM and will have a live play-by-play description of the events.