On five previous occasions, the Howard Payne Lady Jackets have emerged from the American Southwest Conference women’s basketball tournament as champions. This weekend, the fourth-seeded Lady Jackets will attempt to bring home a sixth ASC crown, and their first since 2011.
The Lady Jackets (16-9, 15-7) open tournament action at 5 p.m. Friday against fifth seed Louisiana College (15-10, 13-9) on the campus of tournament host and top seed UT-Tyler, where HPU won the 2008 ASC title en route to a national championship.
Over their last 12 games, the Lady Jackets have won five straight, dropped three in a row, then bounced back with a four-game win streak they are carrying into the postseason.
“After losing three straight winning four straight is a big positive kick for us,” said Lady Jackets first-year head coach Meia Daniels, who was a member of three previous ASC championship squads. “I’m really happy with the way (leading scorers) Britani Gattis and Danyel Bradley have stepped up over the last four games and are playing like themselves. They haven’t looked like they are playing under pressure, they’ve just taken it all in and are playing hard, which makes everyone else play harder.
“I’m also really proud of the way that Kalin Hanna has been playing great defense. Even though she came close to fouling out of the last two games, she hasn’t let that stop her.”
Daniels attributed the ups and downs of this season to a roster that had virtually no playing time together until they stepped on the court back in November.
“We only had one starter returning from last year and usually you have two or three back,” Daniels said. “We only went about eight deep all of last year and most of those kids are gone, so all season they’ve been trying to figure each other out. They’ve struggled, faced adversity, fought through it and made the tournament, and still have a chance to win the conference.”
The first step in that journey requires defeating Louisiana College — which has played in the last three ASC finals — for a third time this season. HPU won at Louisiana College, 78-67, in January and defeated the Lady Cats, 80-65, as part of the current four-game win streak.
“The biggest thing for us is we have to do what we do, which means rebounding, playing defense and taking care of the ball,” Daniels said. “If we play our game we can be successful but if we get into a game where we’re playing Louisiana’s style, things could be different.
“So far this year the girls have stuck to our plan and even though we turned the ball over a lot we still won both games by double digits. That lets them know they can make mistakes and still win games. At the same time, we need to minimize those mistakes.”
As for the tournament itself, Daniels feels any of the eight teams — HPU, Louisiana College, UT-Tyler (22-3, 20-2), No. 2 seed UT-Dallas (20-5 17-5), No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor (16-9, 16-6), No. 6 Ozarks (10-15, 9-13), No. 7 Concordia (11-14, 9-13) or No. 8 LeTourneau (11-14, 9-13) — could hoist the championship trophy.
“I think the tournament is going to be great this year,” Daniels said. “Everyone in the tournament has beaten someone above them or lost to someone below them. Every game should be close, which isn’t always the case in the conference tournament. We look forward to playing anybody and we’ve prepared for everybody past Louisiana College. But right now our biggest focus is on Louisiana College and making it past them first.”
As for the key to returning to Brownwood with the ASC title and an automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament, Daniels pointed to the play of the conference’s leading scorer Bradley (20 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists), Gattis (17 points, 8 rebounds, 39 percent on 3s), Hanna (4.6 points, 7 rebounds 3.4 blocks) and Sarah Van Remmen (9.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks).
“If all four of them play their game, which means rebounding, playing defense and scoring when they need to, we can win a championship,” Daniels said. “If one or two of them struggle, we’re going to struggle unless someone else steps up. We’ve struggled on the road at times this year, but I think they’re ready for the challenge.”
ASC WOMEN’S BASKETBALL
Friday, Feb. 28 - Sunday, March 2; Hosted by UT-Tyler
QUARTERFINALS - Friday, Feb. 28
Game 1: #3 Mary Hardin-Baylor (16-9, 16-6) vs. #6 Ozarks (10-15, 9-13), Noon
Game 2: #UT-Dallas (20-5, 17-5) vs. #7 Concordia (11-14, 9-13), 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: #4 Howard Payne (16-9, 15-7) vs. #5 Louisiana College (15-10, 13-9), 5 p.m.
Game 4: #1 UT-Tyler (22-3, 20-2) vs. 38 LeTourneau (11-14, 9-13), 7:30 p.m.
SEMIFINALS - Saturday, March 1
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 3:30 p.m.
CHAMPIONSHIP - Sunday, March 3
Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 2 p.m.
*Tournament champion advances to NCAA tournament