Following a one-year hiatus, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets are back in the American Southwest Conference Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament and will square off with the last team they faced in the event.

In a rematch of the 2006 conference championship game that took place at the Brownwood Coliseum, the West Division No. 4 seed Yellow Jackets (13-12, 11-10) will tangle with the two-time defending ASC champion Mississippi College Choctaws (19-5, 16-4), winners of the East Division again this season.

Tip off is scheduled for noon Friday at the Mayborn Center in Belton on the campus of No. 14 Mary Hardin-Baylor (22-3, 19-2) — the ASC West Division champion.

The Yellow Jackets, who are making just their third appearance in the ASC tournament, are riding a two-game win streak into Friday’s first-round contest and have allowed just 58 points in each of their last two games — a marked improvement over the 73.4 points per game they have allowed on average this season.

Only once previously this season had the Yellow Jackets allowed less than 60 points in a contest, a 65-54 non-conference win at Southwestern Assemblies of God on Dec. 4.

“Our defense has really picked up,” said Yellow Jackets head coach Charles Pattillo. “We’ve rebounded better and that always helps, and we’ve started trying to run a little match-up zone. Our players have done a super job with it and made up their minds that they wanted to be a better defensive team than what we were the first part of the season.”

Howard Payne is coming off its most lopsided win of the season, a 78-58 victory at Schreiner Saturday in the regular season finale. The Yellow Jackets also slipped past Texas Lutheran, 64-58, last Thursday in Seguin.

“I feel like the past six games we’ve been playing pretty well,” said Pattillo, whose team is 5-3 in its last eight contests. “We didn’t win all of them, but we’re playing pretty well. We’ll have to play equally as well or better against Mississippi College.

“Those were big wins for us last week. Texas Lutheran, with the record they had they were bound to win one and that was a concern for us when we played them. Schreiner is always tough on us. For some reason they always play us tough, but we handled them very well.”

Not only have the Yellow Jackets improved on the defensive end, their offensive execution has made strides as well. Cutting down on turnovers has been one of Pattillo’s main offensive objectives this season, and the Yellow Jackets gave the ball away a season-low nine times at Schreiner.

“We didn’t do well with that against Concordia in our last game here, but against Texas Lutheran and Schreiner we did pretty well,” Pattillo said. “Schreiner was our season-low, so that was really good.”

Howard Payne is also getting more players involved in the scoring aspect offensively. Each of the 10 Yellow Jackets on the active roster has demonstrated his capability of a double-figure outing at any time.

Forward Tom Hermann and guard Lee Scott have been the most consistent performers as they average 15.9 and 15.2 points per game, respectively. Other scoring threats who have either reached or come close to double figures in the last month of the season include center Bryan Blalock (8.6 ppg), point guard Brock Woods (7.8 ppg), guard Gary Thompson (5.3 ppg), center Daytona Burch (5.0 ppg), guard Deandray McDaniel (4.3 ppg) and forward Chris Cornwell (4.0 ppg).

“It’s real big when they can’t focus on one particular scorer, but Mississippi College is the same way” Pattillo said. “Lee, Tom, Gary, Bryan, Chris, all those guys are capable of scoring big points. It just depends on how well we execute our offense.”

In their first meeting with Mississippi College on Jan. 12, the Yellow Jackets came up on the short end of an 83-67 road loss. Hermann scored 26 points to lead the Jackets, followed by 16 each from Woods and Scott, but the rest of the HPU roster contributed only nine points.

The Choctaws outrebounded Howard Payne, 41-28, forced 17 turnovers while giving it away just nine times, and shot 49 percent from the floor. Five Mississippi College players finished in double figures — Tyler Winford (16), Kiki Christmas (14), Andre Coleman (12), Prince Trotter (11) and Bryan Johnson (10).

“Turnovers were definitely the difference in that game,” Pattillo said. “We also had a little bit of the big eye against them. They were rated 14th or 15th in the nation at that time and we just kind of stood back and watched them play. This time we’ll attack them a whole lot better than we did in the first game.”

If the Yellow Jackets can pull off the upset, they will face either West No. 2 seed Concordia (17-8, 14-7) or East No. 3 seed UT-Dallas (17-8, 13-7) in the semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday

Against Mississippi College, Concordia and UT-Dallas, the Yellow Jackets own an 0-4 record this season. Howard Payne is just 2-8 against the entire tournament field with wins over East No. 4 seed East Texas Baptist (9-16, 9-11) and West No. 3 seed Hardin-Simmons (14-11, 13-8) — both on the road.

The Yellow Jackets’ 7-6 record away from home gives Pattillo confidence that his team can be the last one standing when the championship trophy is hoisted following Sunday’s 2 p.m. finale.

“It should be very well balanced. I think any team can beat the others in the this tournament,” Pattillo said. “In past years, there have been some teams stronger than others, but in this tournament I think anybody is capable of winning it. For us to win it, we have to play three really good basketball games, execute well, play great defense and really do a good job rebounding.”

The conference champion will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III tournament and will likely be the only ASC team among the national field. Sul Ross was the last ASC West team to capture the title in 2004.

“The only negative about the tournament is so many teams are in it with so many losses,” Pattillo said. “It’d be better if we had eight teams with single digit losses.”