There will be a changing of the guards --- and in some ways the style of play --- for the back-to-back NCAA Division II South Region champion Arkansas Tech Golden Suns basketball program in 2011-12. Gone are point guard Laura Beth Anderson, All-America shooting guard Jenny Vining and defensive stopper Shaquilah Davis, all of whom were starting seniors on the 2010-11 Arkansas Tech team that went 30-3 overall, won the Gulf South Conference West Division title, captured the GSC Tournament championship and advanced to the NCAA Division II Tournament Elite Eight. To fill the void created by the loss of a trio that helped the Golden Suns compile a 61-6 record the last two years, head coach Dave Wilbers and assistant coach Julio Pacheco assembled a recruiting class of seven newcomers --- six of whom can play at least one of the guard positions. Among those expected to provide immediate backcourt help for Arkansas Tech are junior Lily Abreu of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and junior Roselis Silva of Caracas, Venezuela. Abreu was an honorable mention National Junior College Athletics Association All-American at Kilgore Junior College (Texas) last season. She averaged 17.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting 39 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore. Silva averaged 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 4.2 steals per game for Cisco Junior College (Texas) a year ago. She was named first team all-conference and all-region. Silva also collected the North Texas Junior College Athletics Association newcomer of the year award. “Our guards this year will be more athletic and faster,” said Wilbers, who is 106-21 in four seasons as the Arkansas Tech head women’s basketball coach. “They don’t shoot the basketball quite as well and they don’t know our system quite as well right now, but they are doing a good job in practice. Rosie is an outstanding point guard with great speed, and we like Lily. She was one of the top five players at her position in the country in junior college basketball a season ago.” Perhaps the biggest advantage those new guards will have is the ability to throw the basketball to one of the most experienced and talented frontcourts in NCAA Division II women’s basketball. Senior forward Natalia Santos of Sao Paulo, Brazil, was an honorable mention All-American a year ago after she averaged 17.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for the Golden Suns. Junior forward Jessica Weatherford of Bonnerdale was an all-conference pick with 12.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest in 2010-11. Add in senior forwards Katie Horsman of Fairfield Bay (7.9 points per game, 42 percent 3-point field goals), Samanta Ludwig of Toledo, Brazil (3.4 points, 2.9 rebounds per game) and Lindsey Root of Marion (2.7 points per game, 40 percent 3-point field goals), and Arkansas Tech has five frontcourt players who have been through the rigors of multiple college basketball seasons. “Natalia and Jessica are both stronger, faster and more knowledgeable than they were a year ago,” said Wilbers. “I wouldn’t trade any of our post players for anybody. When we get in the half court we are going to throw the ball into the post and make somebody stop us.” Other returnees for the Golden Suns include junior guard Sarah Martin of Muldrow, Okla.; sophomore guards Lindsey Burgener of Hattieville, Shanae Govan of Crossett and Jackie Dennis of Danville; and redshirt freshman forwards Whitney Donahue of Clinton and Jae Tucker of Little Rock. “Our returners are more confident in what we do in practice and in our game plan than what I really thought they would be,” said Wilbers. “They’ve done a good job of setting the tempo in practice.” Additional newcomers are sophomore guard Breana Williams of Memphis, Tenn.; sophomore forward Joseane Maria Bazilio of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; freshman guard/forward Jaimie Long of Russellville; and freshman guards Cara Neighbors of Lonoke and Haley Stinnett of Cotter. The Golden Suns will compete in a new conference in 2011-12. The Great American Conference became the 23rd NCAA Division II conference on March 9, 2011, with nine charter members --- the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Arkansas Tech University, East Central University, Harding University, Henderson State University, Ouachita Baptist University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Southern Arkansas University and Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Arkansas Tech has won 21 regular season women’s basketball conference titles while competing in three different leagues --- the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association (1977-82), the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (1982-1995) and the Gulf South Conference (1995-2011) --- over the past 34 years. Great American Conference coaches expect that dominance to continue in this new era. The Golden Suns, who are ranked No. 4 in the preseason USA Today/ESPN NCAA Division II top 25 poll, are preseason favorites to win the inaugural GAC women’s basketball championship. “This will be a good women’s basketball league,” said Wilbers. “They play good basketball in Oklahoma, and those programs will have a lot of those Oklahoma kids on their teams. Southeastern Oklahoma State is an outstanding program and they are really looking at this as their year with a lot of experience coming back. We’ll get a chance to visit some new places, develop some new rivalries and our travel will be easier. It’s going to be a great conference.”
Arkansas Tech will begin its 2011-12 women's basketball season by hosting Central Baptist College for a 6:30 p.m. game at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Thursday, Nov. 10.
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