By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (March 8, 2017) — Tarleton State fought for its life three times and survived throughout the Lone Star Conference Championship tournament in Allen last week.
Now, the TexAnns look to win three more in the South Central Region Championship, where everyone’s life is on the line in every game.
“I think there’s an advantage to it, because a lot of teams, especially ones that are seeded so high, they haven’t necessarily been in a lot of real close games, or in games where if they lose their season is over, but we’ve faced that already,” said third-year Tarleton head coach Wilson. “That’s just some of the adversity we have overcome to get where we are at, and we hope that it’s prepared us for another tough tournament.”
Tarleton (16-13) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II playoffs with its conference tournament title, won five years to the day after the program won its first conference tourney on March 5, 2012. The TexAnns’ reward is the No. 8 seed in the regional, and an opening-round contest with No. 1 seed and tournament host Colorado State-Pueblo (27-3), the No. 9 ranked team in the Division II coaches poll.
Tipoff in game three of the regional tournament Friday is set for 6:30 p.m. locally – 5:30 p.m. in Colorado – at Masari Arena, where the Thunderwolves have won 24 straight.
“We have the experience of playing in that gym and against Pueblo,” Wilson said. “And I think with there being four teams from the Lone Star Conference in the regional that it says a lot about our conference and our strength of schedule.”
Wilson says her team’s greatest weapon at this point of the season is its realistic perception of itself.
“We don’t see ourselves through rose-colored glasses, and that’s a strength,” said Wilson. “We understand we may find ourselves behind or dealing with adversity, but we know we can persevere because we’ve been there and done that all season. When everything pretty much goes your way all season, you don’t always get that experience, but we have it. We know ourselves and who we are, and I think that makes us a dangerous team.”
The TexAnns had Pueblo in danger on a November 19 classic game at Massari Arena, leading into the third quarter after taking a 30-26 edge into intermission. But the Thunderwolves came roaring back behind 28 points from junior guard Tuileisu Anderson, outscoring Tarleton 25-15 in the fourth quarter of a 76-64 final.
Anderson averages 16 points per game and sophomore center Molly Rohrer, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year, averages 15.8. She had 15 points and six rebounds in that November meeting.
“We went there and played with them. We led in the second half, and we got to experience playing in that arena, so I hope that comes back to help us now,” Wilson said.
Mackenzie Hailey was the MVP of the conference tournament and for the season averages 15.9 points and 8.4 rebounds. The sophomore center has 13 double-doubles entering the playoffs. Senior guard Bailey Wipff scores 13.8, senior center Ikpeaku Iwobi nets 11.3 and collects 7.5 boards and junior guard Tiara Tatum adds 8.3 points.
“They are a lot like we are, we really do similar stuff,” said Wilson. “Like us, they have a good sophomore post player who they look to get the ball inside to, and like our good sophomore post player, she’s young, so she makes some mistakes and they have had to grow along with her the same way we have with (Hailey).”
The TexAnns are making their seventh NCAA regional tournament appearance and are 2-6 all-time in the playoffs. They are 0-4 against nationally-ranked teams in the post season. It’s their first trip to the regional under Wilson as head coach. She was the assistant coach to now-retired Ronnie Hearne for the prior six.
It’s the first time CSU-Pueblo has hosted the women’s regional after setting a school record with 27 wins. The Pack has advanced to four NCAA tournaments the last six years. Ranked seventh in the Division II sports information directors’ poll, they have have actually lost three of their last six, including a 77-71 upset defeat at the hands of Regis in last week’s RMAC Shootout semifinals. But that stretch came on the heels of a school-record 24-0 start to the year.
The winner meets No. 4 seed West Texas A&M or No. 5 Regis, who face off in the late game Saturday following the TexAnns and Pack. The semifinal is set for 8:30 p.m. (CST) on Saturday.