Otahkians close in on OVC title shot

Friday, March 7, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University's women's basketball team has never advanced to the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.

A win today and the Otahkians will be there, which would in turn put them just one victory away from their first NCAA Division I Tournament berth.

The second-seeded Otahkians (18-10) face sixth-seeded Tennessee Tech (12-16) at 2 p.m. in the second OVC Tournament semifinal at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tenn.

OVC regular-season champion and top-seeded Austin Peay (25-3), which has won the past two tournament titles, plays fourth-seeded Tennessee-Martin (13-15) in today's first semifinal at noon. The semifinal winners meet in Saturday's 11 a.m. finals, with an automatic NCAA berth on the line.

"We're excited, but we can't get too excited," Southeast coach B.J. Smith said. "We have to stay focused."

Smith has helped provide Otahkian fans with plenty of excitement during his first season at Southeast. The Otahkians' second-place OVC regular-season finish is their best ever, and they are just one win away from matching the program's previous high-water mark on the Division I level. The 1998-99 squad went 19-9.

Southeast is in the OVC Tournament semifinals for just the third time since joining the league and moving up to Division I in 1991-92. The Otahkians made it this far during that inaugural OVC season and again in 1998-99, but lost decisively both times.

"It would be great to take that next step," Smith said. "Then once you get in the championship game, anything can happen. We feel like if we play well, we've got as good a chance as anybody."

Unlike in their two previous semifinal appearances, the Otahkians will be favored this time -- and fairly solidly, thanks to Tennessee Tech's 67-65 upset of third-seeded Eastern Kentucky in Tuesday's first round.

While Southeast lost both regular-season meetings with Eastern Kentucky, the Otahkians defeated the Eaglettes twice. But both games went down the wire, Southeast holding on 86-80 in Cape Girardeau and rallying 76-72 in Cookeville, Tenn.

"Come playoff time, anything can happen," Smith said. "Both games against Tech we were very fortunate to win and I expect a battle."

Tennessee Tech has been the OVC's dominant women's program as the Eaglettes have won or shared 15 regular-season titles and captured nine tournament crowns.

The Eaglettes, who are exceptionally young, suffered through a down season this year but improved steadily down the stretch. They have the OVC Freshman of the Year in 6-foot-1 forward Emily Christian, who is the league's second-leading scorer with 17.7 points per game. She scored 39 points in the final regular-season game and had 22 Tuesday.

"She's probably the hottest player in the league right now," Smith said.

Southeast counters with the OVC Newcomer of the Year in junior guard Kenja White (13.6 ppg), along with three more double-figure scorers: senior forward Lori Chase (13.3 ppg), junior forward Carina Souza (12 ppg) and junior forward Yashika Sidbury (10.7 ppg).

Souza is sixth in the league in field-goal shooting (52.8 percent), Sidbury is sixth in 3-point shooting (37.4 percent), and junior guard Sarah Costello ranks second in steals and fifth in assists.

"I feel like we can win the tournament, if we just play hard," White said. "But we can't overlook anybody."

mmishow@semissourian.com

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