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One Last Sunrise in Bartlesville

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There was the time Jessica Weatherford overcame a shoulder injury to put the Golden Suns on her back for their first Great American Conference Tournament title.

More than once Arkansas Tech University's women narrowly avoided a first-round exit and went on to hoist the championship trophy.

Fatima Adams and Cheyenne North cemented their Golden Suns' legacies with tournament most valuable player awards there.

Now, after eight years, the GAC Tournament's run at Bruin Fieldhouse in Bartlesville, Okla., will come to an end this weekend and the event will move to a new, to be announced location in 2020.

No. 7 seed Arkansas Tech (13-15) will open defense of its title against No. 2 seed East Central University (21-7) at noon on Thursday, March 7.

Radio station KCJC 102.3 FM and www.arkansastechsports.com will provide live coverage.

"Nobody has won more games at the GAC Tournament than us," said Dave Wilbers, ATU head coach, following the Golden Suns' regular season finale on Saturday. "We've played well there, and I expect us to play well there this year. It's an accomplishment to get to Bartlesville. This was a year when everyone was battling to get those spots. I've seen a lot of strange things happen at Bartlesville with teams getting hot, starting to hit shots and playing well."

The Golden Suns won GAC Tournament titles in 2013, 2016 and 2018. Five of the seven ATU players who saw action in last year's championship game will be back on the Bruin Fieldhouse floor beginning Thursday.

East Central and Arkansas Tech played two memorable games during the 2018-19 regular season. The Tigers took advantage of a foul call with 0.2 seconds remaining to defeat the Golden Suns 61-59 in Ada, Okla., on Jan. 5. ATU bounced back to earn a 64-56 home win over ECU on Jan. 31. The Suns closed out the victory with a 10-0 run over the final three minutes.

Senior guard Lakin Preisner leads the Tigers in scoring (13.1 points per game) and ranks among the GAC leaders in free throw percentage (1st, .927), rebounding (2nd, 8.2 per game) and 3-point field goal percentage (8th, .388).

Perimeter shooting is a big part of the Tigers' offensive attack. They rank second in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (.359) and third in the conference in 3-point field goals made (8.5), but defense is the No. 1 reason ECU was able to earn the No. 2 seed.

East Central leads the GAC in scoring defense (59.8 points allowed per game) and ranks second in the league in field goal percentage defense (.373).

Arkansas Tech clinched its 13th consecutive postseason appearance by winning seven of its final 11 games.

Junior guard Hannah Villines as well as sophomore guards Jayana Sanders and Jacie Higgins helped the Golden Suns make it back to Bartlesville by raising their level of play down the stretch.

Villines reached double figures in scoring in each of the final 11 regular season games and averaged 17.1 points per game over that span. Sanders averaged 6.1 assists per game during the final 11 contests of the regular season, while Higgins scored at a rate of 13.8 points per game over the last eight.

Arkansas Tech's women are 14-4 all-time in the GAC Tournament, including a 6-1 record in the first round and a 2-0 record against ECU. The Golden Suns defeated the Tigers 81-69 in the 2013 semifinals and 68-64 in the 2018 first round. Both ATU wins over ECU in Bartlesville led to GAC Tournament championships for the Golden Suns.