Time to Play: No. 1 Suns Host FVSU Friday

It is a process that began more than two years ago with the recruitment of perhaps the most talented class in the illustrious 34-year history of Arkansas Tech women’s basketball. The process continued with a 31-3 season, a Gulf South Conference championship and an NCAA Division II South Region title in 2009-10. Now, after another GSC title and 27 wins during the 2010-11 season, the nationally top-ranked Arkansas Tech Golden Suns are six wins away from the ultimate prize — a national championship. Arkansas Tech (27-2) will begin the 2011 NCAA Division II Tournament by taking on the Fort Valley State Lady Wildcats (22-9) in a first-round South Regional game on Friday. Tip-off at Tucker Coliseum is set for 6 p.m. The Tucker Coliseum ticket office will open at noon Friday. “It’s really a year-long thing,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Dave Wilbers, who is 103-20 in four seasons with the Golden Suns. “The good thing about Division II basketball is that every game counts, and if you are fortunate enough to have a good record you have a chance to host the regional. I thought we did a very good job toward the end of the season and in our conference tournament.

“We are excited about the opportunity to host the regional,” continued Wilbers. “I know the people in the community and around the university are very excited about it. We did this last year, so we are comfortable with hosting a regional and I think it will be an outstanding event.”

The Golden Suns enter the NCAA Tournament on a 13-game winning streak. Arkansas Tech clinched the right to host the NCAA South Regional by defeating Delta State 73-62 in the GSC Tournament championship game last Sunday in Southaven, Miss.

The celebration of that win was tempered by a season-ending knee injury suffered by Arkansas Tech senior guard Shaquilah Davis with 3:58 remaining in the game.

Davis averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game during her senior campaign. She ranks among the top eight players in the GSC in both field goal percentage and steals this season.

“We feel for Q,” said Wilbers, referring to the Colorado Springs, Colo., product by her nickname. “She’s had such a great senior year for us. She’s a great athlete who rebounds the basketball and provides great leadership for our team. We’re not going to be able to replace some of what she did for us, but we’ve got a good bench and we’ve got players who have played a lot of minutes for us the last two years. They’ll just have to step up into that role and be productive.”

Junior forward Natalia Santos (16.9 points, 7.9 rebounds per game), senior guard Jenny Vining (14.6 points, 3.6 assists per game), sophomore forward Jessica Weatherford (12.4 points, 7.2 rebounds per game) and senior guard Laura Beth Anderson (10.3 points, 5.6 assists per game) have been the Golden Suns’ top producers this season.

Arkansas Tech leads NCAA Division II in field goal percentage (.507). The Golden Suns rank fourth in the nation in scoring offense (84.0 points per game).

Fort Valley State (22-9) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament by winning the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title.

The Lady Wildcats are under the direction of Lonnie Bartley, who has won 594 games in 27 years as the Fort Valley State head coach. The great majority of those wins were built on defense. The Lady Wildcats have bolstered their reputation on that end of the floor this season by ranking eighth in NCAA Division II in steals (14.0 per game) and 34th in the country in field goal percentage defense (.361). “Fort Valley State is well-coached and very disciplined on defense,” said Wilbers. “They don’t make many mistakes, and they don’t take a lot of chances either. They can press, and they play a really tight defense. It’s definitely one of the best defensive teams that we have faced this season, both in the full-court and in the half-court.” This will mark the fourth time that Arkansas Tech and Fort Valley State have met in the women’s NCAA Division II Tournament.

Their first meeting came in the 1999 NCAA Division II South Region championship game in Fort Valley, Ga.

Angie Harris scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, while Khelli Mullen and Mindy Lasater added 16 points apiece in a 63-52 Golden Suns’ victory that propelled them into the NCAA Elite Eight for a second consecutive season. That 1998-99 Arkansas Tech squad went on to reach the national championship game.

The Golden Suns added first-round NCAA Tournament wins over Fort Valley State in 2001 (78-41) and 2002 (68-64). Both of those games were played at Walter Sillers Coliseum in Cleveland, Miss.

The winner of Friday’s Arkansas Tech-Fort Valley State game will advance to face either Florida Tech or Tampa in the regional semifinals at 6 p.m. Saturday at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville.

The regional championship game is set for 7 p.m. Monday at Tucker Coliseum.

The NCAA South Region champion will advance to the NCAA Elite Eight March 22-25 in St. Joseph, Mo.

All games involving Arkansas Tech during the NCAA South Regional will be broadcast in the Arkansas River Valley by KWKK 100.9 FM.

Click here to access an Internet stream of the broadcast.

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