The American Southwest Conference West Division title and the site of the women’s conference championship tournament could both be decided over the next two weekends as the No. 6 Howard Payne Lady Jackets embark on their toughest stretch of the schedule.
The West-leading Lady Jackets (17-0, 13-0) — one of only three undefeated teams remaining in NCAA Division III women’s basketball — will face No. 14 Hardin Simmons (14-2, 12-1) and No. 13 McMurry (15-2, 12-1) in their next four games as all three teams are in position to capture the division title and earn the right to host the ASC tournament.
“You have to love the situation we’re in,” said Lady Jackets head coach Chris Kielsmeier. “No matter how pressure-packed the games are, it’s just a special opportunity for these young kids to get to play in games like this. We’re real comfortable right now and understand how difficult this stretch is, and we also understand how well we’re going to have to play to be successful.”
Though each game is significant, Kielsmeier and company are approaching them one at a time, beginning with tonight’s 5:30 p.m. duel at Hardin-Simmons. The Cowgirls — who reached the Final Four last season — are in the midst of a nine-game win streak and handed McMurry its first conference loss, 77-67, Monday night.
Hardin-Simmons also ended the Lady Jackets’ postseason run in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, but Kielsmeier stated that game hasn’t been mentioned in the team’s preparation.
“It’s such a rivalry every year that (the NCAA tournament) hasn’t really been talked about at all. It’s been all about this year,” Kielsmeier said. “Their biggest strength right now is their confidence. You can just tell the way their whole approach on the court is that they believe they’re going to win and they believe they can play great basketball.”
The Cowgirls — who have scored at least 70 points in each of their last seven games and over 90 points in two of the last three — are led by senior guard Lyssa Dennard’s 13.3 points per game. Fellow senior guard Laci Walker is contributing 11.5 points per contest while senior post Melissa Contrucci has racked up 11 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game.
Hardin-Simmons trails only the Lady Jackets and McMurry in both points per game and field goal percentage. Howard Payne is shooting a conference-best 46.6 percent from the floor, followed by McMurry (46.5) and Hardin-Simmons (46.4).
“We understand that Hardin-Simmons is playing really well right now and that they’re a confident team that’s shooting the ball really well,” Kielsmeier said. “It’ll take a great effort from us to be successful Thursday night. It’s also taken a lot of great efforts all year to be at the point we’re at right now. Our focus is about Howard Payne and what we can do to be successful.”
Offensively, Howard Payne is led by preseason All-American junior guard Meia Daniels, who averages 19.0 points — third best in the conference — and a team-best 6.2 rebounds per game. Junior center Stacey Blalock is chipping in 12.5 points and 5.2 boards per outing, while junior forward Kim Hoffman is posting 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.
But the defensive side of the ball is what separates Howard Payne from most teams. The Lady Jackets are still first in the nation in points allowed per game (41.6) and margin of victory (35.6), and second in the country in opponents’ field goal percentage (30.1).
Kielsmeier attributes the Lady Jackets’ consistency on both ends of the court to the passion they have not only for the game itself, but performing at the highest level in every aspect of their preparation.
“The kids love the game and it’s been all about playing basketball with this group,” he said. “We’ve got a great mix of upperclassmen and younger players. It’s been a great balance of a team that has a tremendous passion to play the game and be successful. They play with so much passion and they’re fun to watch because they compete at such a high level. They just love what they do. I’m going to sit back and rely on that to get us through.”
If there is an area of concern for the Lady Jackets entering tonight’s game, it would be overcoming the slow starts that have been evident over the past few contests.
Though Howard Payne is off to its best start in program history, the last two wins have been anything but easy. The Lady Jackets trailed midway through the second half to both Mary Hardin-Baylor and Concordia — something that never happened during the first 15 wins — but they were able to rebound for home victories of 77-62 and 55-48, respectively.
With the first two games of this crucial stretch on the road in front of hostile crowds, the Lady Jackets will need to be at their best from the opening tip.
“The most important part for us is to start the game well,” Kielsmeier said. “We need to play well right from the opening tip in the first few minutes of the ball game. These are difficult places to play with big crowds and teams that play well at home. If we get out and play well early on, I think we’ll just continue to play well throughout the course of the game.”
Looking ahead to Saturday’s battle, McMurry features the conference’s second-leading scorer in junior post Tarra Richardson (20.4) and boasts the ASC’s second-best three-point shooting percentage (38.8). Junior wing Maigen Sawyer (14.1 ppg) and sophomore post Allison Nelson (10.2 ppg) are also key cogs in the McMurry offense.
Several teams in the ASC might consider their weekend road trips to Abilene nightmarish, but the Lady Jackets are embracing this opportunity to prove to the conference and the country that Howard Payne basketball truly belongs among the nation’s elite.
“This group has not been challenged a ton this year, but any time they have been challenged, the best in them has come out,” Kielsmeier said. “I can say with a tremendous amount of confidence that that’s an absolute fact. Certainly we know we’re going to be challenged this week, so I expect us to play our best basketball and play to our ability.
“We’ve prepared well this week and put the game plan in place and we intend to execute the game plan. It’s worked 17 times up to this point, so we certainly feel a tremendous amount of confidence that it’s going to work again.”