The five-time American Southwest Conference champion Howard Payne Lady Jackets enter their 12th conference championship tournament with a record 19 victories and a .730 winning percentage — the best of any program in the league. But HPU hasn’t captured an ASC crown since 2011, and only five members of this year’s roster have participated in postseason competition.

Second-year head coach Meia Daniels, who played on three conference championship squads, will attempt to guide her squad to three more victories and the ASC title, but she realizes her team has a considerable chore ahead.

“They’re going to have to play out of their minds and play with heart,” Daniels said in regard to what it will take for the Lady Jackets to earn a sixth ASC championship. “Having 14 kids and only five girls that have ever been in a conference tournament game period, they really have no clue what they’re in for. The biggest thing is to keep having fun and to not get overwhelmed and feel like their life is going to change if they lose a game.”

The postseason journey for the No. 4 seed Lady Jackets (15-10, 12-8) begins against rival and fifth-seed Hardin-Simmons (12-13, 10-10), which ranks second in all-time tournament victories (18) and winning percentage (.667) and first overall in championships with six. But the Cowgirls have not earned a crown since 2004, and are returning to postseason play after missing the ASC tournament for the first time last year after 15 consecutive appearances.

Howard Payne won the first two meetings, 69-58, in Brownwood on Dec. 16 and 76-62 in Abilene on Jan. 31. Game time for the tournament opener between the Lady Jackets and Cowgirls is 5 p.m. Thursday.

“Playing Hardin-Simmons is always hard because of the rivalry,” Daniels said. “Trying to beat a team three times is even harder because they’ve seen you twice already. They know the stuff you’re good at and the stuff you’re bad at. And a lot of times if you beat a team twice the girls will look at it like it’s going to be easy and forget to play basketball. But if they do their jobs, stick to the things that worked in both those games, they should be fine. They just have to play like it’s their last game cause it could be — win or go home.”

The Lady Jackets carry a three-game win streak into the tournament, while Hardin-Simmons has dropped two in a row. Howard Payne owns just a 5-8 record away from the Brownwood Coliseum, but has won three of the last four on the road.

“At the beginning of the season, playing on the road was not good for us,” Daniels said. “Lately, we’ve been a little better. Our mindset has changed with this being the conference tournament. They understand what they’re playing for and that changes their whole demeanor of playing on the road.

“I’m feeling confident about the way the girls are playing right now. The biggest thing is we’re playing with more heart. Our last game was kind of sloppy, so we had to get in the gym and fix some things defensively. Our communication is not very good at times defensively, we get lazy, we don’t like to talk and things break down. For us to win games in the tournament, we have to play well defensively. But I’m confident with where we are and they understand what they’re playing for.”

Thursday’s winner will face either No. 1 seed and 11th-ranked UT-Tyler (24-1, 19-1) or No. 8 seed Ozarks (11-14, 7-13) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. The semifinal winner will advance to Sunday’s 4 p.m. championship game.

The other half of the bracket features No. 2 UT-Dallas (21-4, 17-3) vs. Concordia (9-15, 8-12) and No. 3 Louisiana College (16-7, 13-7) vs. No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-12) in Thursday action.