Suns vs. DSU: Greatest Rivalry in D-II Resumes

Through 18 years and 43 meetings, their rivalry has grown to become the best in NCAA Division II women’s basketball.

Now, with conference changes on the horizon, the Arkansas Tech Golden Suns and the Delta State Lady Statesmen are prepared to author the final chapter in their great drama.

Nationally second-ranked Arkansas Tech (14-1 overall, 3-0 GSC) and nationally fourth-ranked Delta State (15-1, 3-1) will play at Walter Sillers Coliseum in Cleveland, Miss., on Saturday, Jan. 22, in what could be the first of four meetings over the next two months.

Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. The game can be heard on KWKK 100.9 FM in the Arkansas River Valley.

Click here to access an Internet stream of the broadcast.

The prologue to this story came in 1993 when defending NAIA national champion Arkansas Tech swept two non-conference games from defending NCAA Division II national champion Delta State.

Arkansas Tech joined Delta State in the Gulf South Conference at the beginning of the 1995-96 school year, and over the past 15 years they have taken turns holding the upper hand over the other.

The Golden Suns landed the initial blow by winning at least a share of the GSC West Division title in each of their first three seasons in the league. The Lady Statesmen finished one game behind Tech in all three of those seasons.

The Suns also won the GSC Tournament and NCAA Division II South Region championships in their first year of eligibility for either (1998).

Then it was Delta State’s turn. The Lady Statesmen defeated Arkansas Tech in the GSC Tournament championship game four consecutive years from 1999-2002 (although it is worth noting that the Golden Suns bounced back in 1999 to reach the NCAA Division II national championship game).

The rivalry briefly cooled after coaching icons Lloyd Clark (Delta State) and Joe Foley (Arkansas Tech) left their respective positions, but it returned with a passion in 2006-07.

The Lady Statesmen swept four games from the Golden Suns that season — two in the regular season, one in the GSC Tournament final and one in the NCAA Division II South Region semifinals. All four games were decided by seven points or less.

Those four victories were part of a 12-game Delta State winning streak over Arkansas Tech that began in 2005.

The streak — and five years of frustration for the Golden Suns — ended on Jan. 29, 2010, when Arkansas Tech held the Lady Statesmen scoreless over the final 6:35 to claim a 56-47 win in front of 3,122 fans at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville.

The pendulum was finally swinging the other direction. The Golden Suns went on to defeat Delta State 75-73 in double overtime in the 2010 GSC Tournament championship game and 73-62 in the 2010 NCAA Division II South Region title contest.

With both teams set to return 10 letter winners for 2010-11, it was obvious that this season could take the rivalry between Arkansas Tech and Delta State to an even higher level.

The stakes became greater in the off-season when it was announced that Arkansas Tech will leave the GSC after this season to join a new NCAA Division II conference — the Great American Conference.

And so here we are — the two winningest programs in NCAA Division II women’s basketball history, two teams that are capable of winning the national championship, two teams that know each other inside and out and two months to decide which one will hold final bragging rights over the other as they close out their GSC era together.

“It’s been a great tradition and a great rivalry throughout the years,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Dave Wilbers. “I think it means even more since this is the last year we’ll be in the conference together and the last year we’ll play home-and-home. There have been a lot of great players in this rivalry over the years, and this year is no different.” The key figures in this final chapter of the Tech-DSU story have all proven themselves worthy of the traditions they inherited when they became Golden Suns and Lady Statesmen.

For Arkansas Tech, the list includes junior forward Natalia Santos (18.7 points, 7.4 rebounds per game), senior guard Jenny Vining (13.7 points, 3.9 assists per game), sophomore forward Jessica Weatherford (12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds per game), junior forward Katie Horsman (8.2 points per game), senior guard Shaquilah Davis (7.9 points, 2.5 steals per game) and senior point guard Laura Beth Anderson (7.6 points, 5.5 assists per game).

Delta State’s success centers around a pair of Indianola, Miss., products — senior point guard Bug Cooper (8.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game) and junior forward Veronica Walker (17.3 points, 9.2 rebounds per game).

Wichita State transfer Sheena Johnson (10.1 points per game) has given the Lady Statesmen another perimeter scoring threat to go with 3-point specialist and senior guard Moe Bell (9.4 points per game).

Delta State will enter Saturday’s contest with a 58-game home winning streak. It matches the longest such streak in Lady Statesmen history.

If the Golden Suns are able to stop Delta State from breaking its school record for consecutive home wins on Saturday, it will be Arkansas Tech’s first victory over the Lady Statesmen in Walter Sillers Coliseum since March 1, 2003.