No. 1 Golden Suns Ready for Elite Eight

Sixty-one wins over the past two seasons have earned the current group of Arkansas Tech Golden Suns two Gulf South Conference West Division championships, a pair of GSC Tournament titles and two NCAA Division II South Region crowns. Three more wins would earn these Golden Suns a piece of immortality in the storied history of Arkansas Tech University women’s basketball. Nationally top-ranked Arkansas Tech (30-2) will continue its pursuit of an NCAA Division II national championship when it takes on the nationally third-ranked Michigan Tech Huskies (29-2) in the national quarterfinals at St. Joseph, Mo., on Tuesday, March 22. Tip-off at the St. Joseph Civic Arena is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday. Radio station KWKK 100.9 FM will have the broadcast in the Arkansas River Valley.

Click here to access an Internet stream of the broadcast.   Arkansas Tech was twice national champion of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) women’s basketball. Led by All-Americans Stephanie Strack, Alison Setliff, Dawn Grell and Carin Pinion, the Golden Suns captured back-to-back NAIA national titles in 1992 and 1993. Five years after its final NAIA crown, Arkansas Tech was competing at a new level. The Golden Suns made their debut in the NCAA Division II Tournament in a big way by claiming the 1998 NCAA South Region title and their first berth in the NCAA Elite Eight. This year, Arkansas Tech makes its fourth appearance in the NCAA Elite Eight. The Golden Suns were eliminated in the national quarterfinals in 1998 and 2010. They made it to the national championship game in 1999 before falling to North Dakota 80-63.

And while the 1998 Golden Suns were newcomers in the event, the 1999 Golden Suns were underdogs with only six healthy regulars and the 2010 Golden Suns featured just one senior starter, the 2011 Golden Suns have the experience and depth to be considered among the favorites this week. “I think our team has a lot left emotionally and physically for the Elite Eight,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Dave Wilbers. “Every night we took the court this year we were ranked in the top five in the country. When we went on the road, every game was big. The teams we played definitely played harder against us this year. That made us work harder and earn those victories throughout the season.” Arkansas Tech has won 16 consecutive games, including an 85-77 win over nationally fourth-ranked Delta State in the NCAA South Region title game at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on March 14. Earlier that evening, 1,065 miles to the north in Houghton, Mich., Michigan Tech also extended its winning streak to 16 consecutive games with a 69-57 win over Wisconsin-Parkside in the NCAA Midwest Region championship game. The Huskies (29-2) are back in the NCAA Elite Eight for a third consecutive year, but in their last two trips they have failed to advance beyond the national quarterfinals.

Michigan Tech dropped a 61-53 decision to Minnesota State-Mankato in the 2009 quarterfinals and a 91-85 decision to Emporia State in the 2010 quarterfinals. On both occasions, the team that defeated Michigan Tech in the national quarterfinals went on to win the national championship three days later. The No. 1 reason the Huskies are the first program to ever win three consecutive NCAA Division II Midwest Region titles is their defense. Michigan Tech ranks fifth in NCAA Division II in scoring defense (53.8 points allowed per game) and 15th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.351). “As we evaluated them on tape, Michigan Tech looks like the best team we’ve faced since Franklin Pierce in the Elite Eight last year,” said Wilbers. “They are very solid. They have big kids down in the post that make it hard to get easy baskets. Their guards are athletic. They play a little more half-court, whereas we like to run transition. Tempo is going to be a big key in the game.” The Huskies’ defense will be challenged by an Arkansas Tech team that ranks fourth in NCAA Division II in scoring offense (84.6 points per game).

The Golden Suns are on pace to break the 19-year old school record for scoring average in a season set by the 1991-92 NAIA national champion Golden Suns. They averaged 80.7 points per game while amassing a 35-1 overall record.

Arkansas Tech leads not only NCAA Division II but all of NCAA women’s basketball this season in field goal percentage (.511). NCAA Division I powerhouse Connecticut (.501) is second to the Golden Suns among all-division field goal percentage leaders in 2010-11.

Michigan Tech’s anticipated starting line-up for Tuesday includes senior forward Lucy Dernovsek (12.2 points, 8.5 rebounds per game); senior center Lisa Staehlin (12.1 points, 5.2 rebounds per game); sophomore guard Sam Hoyt (11.4 points per game); junior forward Lindsey Lindstrom (8.4 points, 7.2 rebounds per game); and senior guard Angela Guisfredi (7.8 points per game).

Dernovsek, Hoyt and Guisfredi give the Huskies a prolific trio of perimeter shooters. All three have made more than 50 shots from 3-point range this season and all three shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Their 3-point shooting prowess has helped Michigan Tech rank third in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (.401) and 13th in the nation in 3-point field goals made (7.9 per game).

Arkansas Tech is likely to send this starting five onto the floor Tuesday night: junior forward Natalia Santos (17.4 points, 7.9 rebounds per game); senior guard Jenny Vining (15.4 points, 3.5 assists per game); sophomore forward Jessica Weatherford (12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds per game); senior guard Laura Beth Anderson (10.6 points, 5.9 assists per game); and junior forward Katie Horsman (8.1 points per game).

Perhaps the greatest difference for the Golden Suns between last year and this year entering the NCAA Elite Eight is the balance of their scoring.

Arkansas Tech relied heavily on Santos and Weatherford to score in the low post during the 2010 NCAA Tournament. They have continued their production during the 2011 postseason, and now Vining and Anderson are playing some of the best basketball of their lives. Vining has made 25 3-pointers and is averaging 20.7 points per game during the 2011 postseason. She was named most outstanding player in the Gulf South Conference Tournament and the NCAA Division II South Regional. Anderson has scored at an unprecedented level over the past month. After reaching double figures in scoring in just seven of Arkansas Tech’s first 22 games this season, she has accomplished that feat in nine of her last 10 outings. Anderson has averaged 17 points per game and shot 64 percent from the field during that span. “Our balanced scoring is the biggest difference between us right now and us at this time last year,” said Wilbers. “We’re scoring in transition and hitting a lot more 3-point shots. We’re getting shots from several different spots on the floor, which is opening up our post game.” The winner of the Arkansas Tech-Michigan Tech game will play in the national semifinals at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, against either Northwest Missouri State or Cal Poly Pomona. The national championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, March 25. All games during the NCAA Elite Eight will be played at the St. Joseph Civic Arena.