After coming home with a pair of victories at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Mississippi last weekend, the Howard Payne Lady Jackets have shifted their attention to the American Southwest Conference race, which begins Saturday with a visit from UT-Tyler.

The five-time ASC champions tip off league play at 1 p.m. Saturday against the Lady Patriots (0-1), the first of three consecutive games at the Brownwood Coliseum against the upper echelon from the East Division. Mississippi College (2-0) and Louisiana College (2-0) follow with contests on Thursday and Saturday, Dec. 1.

“UT-Tyler has a new coach, but I expect them to still be extremely athletic and fast,” said HPU fifth-year head coach Josh Prock. “Then we turn around and play Mississippi College and Louisiana College and, over the past couple of years, Mississippi College has battled us to the last minute of almost every game. Louisiana College, the last three years in the regular season, they’ve had our number. We haven’t done a good job against them so we have to pick it up and get better. Those are three crucial games because we haven’t done as well against the East recently as we should.”

Starting ASC action on the right foot is imperative not only for the Lady Jackets’ bid at potentially hosting the conference tournament — which will be played at the site of the No. 1 seed from the West — but their NCAA tournament chances as well. Last season, HPU missed the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 2005.

“These games are critical,” Prock said. “Being on the regional committee now, I know being in the South we can’t afford very many losses. If we lose three, four or five games, we’re going to have to win the conference tournament or not get into the national tournament.”

Following the opening three-game stretch, the Lady Jackets visit LeTourneau on Dec. 8 and host East Texas Baptist on Dec. 15, then play four consecutive non-conference contests before finishing up action against the East with games at Ozarks on Jan. 3 and UT-Dallas on Jan. 5.

“The schedule favors us a little with four of the first five conference games at home,” Prock said. “We have to take care of our own backyard. If we can do that, I’ll feel pretty confident going into Christmas that we’ll be standing in good shape.”

West action begins on Jan. 10 when Schreiner comes to town and concludes on Feb. 16 at defending ASC champion Concordia. The Lady Jackets were picked to finish second in the West behind Concordia in the preseason poll, while Hardin-Simmons and Mary Hardin-Baylor are the other projected tournament qualifiers. However, Prock feels both the West and East are as wide open as they’ve been in years.

“Not just the West, but the whole conference overall pretty much every team lost its top two players, so it really shakes out even across the board,” Prock said. “I think the West is wide open and I figure us, Concordia and Hardin-Simmons will be the top three teams. UMHB has a new coach, Schreiner’s been competing better and TLU and Sul Ross changed coaches, too, so you’re not sure what to expect there. There’s a lot of new faces this year in the West.”

The Lady Jackets, sparked by the performance of ASC West player of the week Tresta Donahoo, ride into Saturday’s conference opener with the momentum of wins over Berry College (96-77) and Huntingdon (76-66).

Against Berry, the Lady Jackets scored 50 second-half points and shot 49 percent from the field, led by 25 points from Donahoo, 22 from Dana Marrs and 14 from Danyel Bradley. Howard Payne did allow Berry to convert 45 percent of its shots, however, including 8 of 20 three-pointers.

In the win over Huntingdon, Howard Payne converted just 35 percent of its shots and 29 percent of its treys, but drained 86 percent of its free throws. On the defensive end, the Lady Jackets limited Huntingdon to 31 percent shooting from the floor.

“We had some kids step up offensively as Tresta, Dana and Danyel had some big games,” Prock said. “Obviously we need that, but giving up the number of points we have isn’t good enough. We have to cut down on the points allowed and I think every girl on this team would agree that we have to get better defensively.

“Defense, rebounding and free throw shooting, those are the three areas where we have to improve. Honestly, I feel like we have enough people who can score baskets and enough kids on this team who can score points. Stopping teams is going to be the key, but I feel like we got better with each half over the weekend. You can tell from our opponents’ shooting percentages because they kept going down.”