Suns Face First-Round Test from Argonauts

It is traditional in college basketball that if you are a No. 1 seed in your conference tournament, your opening-round game is supposed to be a breeze. A mere formality.

Arkansas Tech, the No. 1 seed from the Gulf South Conference West Division in this week’s GSC Women’s Basketball Tournament, does not enjoy that luxury. The nationally sixth-ranked Golden Suns (25-2) will face the dangerous West Florida Argonauts (14-13) in first-round action at 2:45 p.m. Thursday at the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, Miss. Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM will provide live play-by-play coverage.

Click here to access an Internet stream of the radio broadcast.

It would be easy to mistake West Florida for a No. 1 seed in the tournament after scrolling through the league’s statistical leaders. The Argonauts lead the GSC East Division in scoring offense, field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage defense. UWF also ranks in the top third of the GSC in 3-point shooting and field goal percentage defense. But all of those impressive numbers only added up to a 4-6 mark in GSC East Division play during the regular season, so the Argonauts arrive in Southaven as the No. 4 seed from the GSC East. “They’ve got a lot of experience,” said Tech head coach Dave Wilbers when asked about the Argonauts. “I really like their guards. They’re not as big as we are, but they have a lot of 5-foot-10, 5-foot-11 post players that are upperclassmen and do a good job in the paint. They create some match-up problems for us on the perimeter, but I think they’ve got match-up problems with us in the post.” The Golden Suns don’t have to look at statistics to understand that West Florida is a worthy opponent. A peek into the not-so-distant past is a reminder of how talented the Argonauts are. Arkansas Tech needed overtime and a last-second steal by Nikki Earles to preserve a 73-70 victory over West Florida at Pensacola in the most recent meeting between the two programs on Dec. 30, 2008. Only two Golden Suns (Ashley Chisum and Taise da Silva) who played in that game are still part of Tech’s roster, but many of the key Argonauts from that contest are still playing for UWF. Tiffany Williams scored 25 points and Amy Drake notched 17 points in a losing effort for the Argonauts on that evening at the UWF Field House. They combined to make 9-of-17 from 3-point range. A little more than 14 months later, Drake and Williams are seniors for West Florida and its top two scorers. Drake averages 16.4 points per game, while Williams averages 12 points per night. Drake ranks fifth in the GSC in scoring, third in assists (4.8 per game), first in free throw percentage (.883), ninth in steals (1.96 per game), third in 3-point field goal percentage (.410) and seventh in 3-point field goals made (2.04 per game). “They set a lot of picks for her to get her open, and she’s very good in transition,” said Wilbers of Drake. “We’ve got to help out on her and run some double teams at her to get the basketball out of her hands. It will really be a team defense to try to contain her.” The Golden Suns won their first GSC West Division title in seven years this season.

Tech rolled to a 12-2 record in league play behind an offensive attack that leads the GSC in scoring (80.6 points per game), field goal percentage (.482), 3-point field goal percentage (.368) and assists (19.52 per game). The Golden Suns’ balanced attack is best symbolized by its two All-GSC West Division first team selections.  Junior guard Jenny Vining is Tech’s most dangerous weapon on the perimeter. She ranks third in the GSC in scoring (18.7 points per game). Vining leads the GSC and ranks second in NCAA Division II in 3-point field goals made (3.8 per game). Sophomore forward Natalia Santos has emerged as one of the top post players in the conference. She ranks eighth in the GSC in scoring (15.5 points per game), fourth in rebounding (7.7 per game) and third in field goal percentage (.551). But true balance does not come from two players alone.

Forward and GSC West Division freshman of the year Jessica Weatherford (11.3 points per game), junior guard Laura Beth Anderson (9.3 points per game) and sophomore forward Katie Horsman (7.3 points per game) have all shown the ability to shoulder a scoring load for the Suns when needed this season.

The winner of the Tech-UWF game will advance to the semifinals on Saturday against either Harding (16-11) or North Alabama (17-13). Tech was a combined 3-0 against those two teams during the 2009-10 regular season.

The other side of the women’s bracket pits Delta State (23-2) against West Alabama (9-18) and Valdosta State (18-7) against Christian Brothers (15-11) in first-round games on Thursday.

The women’s championship game is scheduled for noon on Sunday.