Southeast women face tough Big 12 test

Friday, November 18, 2005
The Southeast Missouri State women's basketball team returns six seniors from last year's 22-8 team that finished second in the Ohio Valley Conference. Returning seniors, from left, are Natalie Purcell, Simone Jackson, Katrisha Dunn, Tiffane Ryan, Wanika Owsley and Tatiana Conceicao. (Don Frazier)

Southeast Missouri State coach B.J. Smith has visions of building the Redhawks into a top-20 program nationally.

He figures tonight's season opener at perennial powerhouse Texas Tech could be a good gauge as to just where the Redhawks stand on the national scene. The tipoff is set for 7 p.m. in Lubbock, Texas.

"It will be a big challenge for us," said Smith, in his fourth season at Southeast. "We'll see what it takes to be a top-20 team."

While Texas Tech isn't the nation's preeminent women's college basketball program, the Raiders certainly rank on the short list.

Marsha Sharp, inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, has a 557-176 record in her 24th season as the Raiders' coach, and she led them to the 1992-93 national title.

Texas Tech has had 16 consecutive seasons of at least 20 wins and has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of those years. Last season the Raiders went 24-8 and made the NCAA Sweet 16.

"They've just got a tremendous program, one of the very best in the country," Smith said.

With four starters and 11 letterwinners returning from last year, the Raiders entered this season ranked 13th -- and they appeared to be every bit that good during Sunday's opener, when they led third-ranked LSU much of the way before falling 76-68.

"It was a great game for us to be involved in," Sharp said. "You're always glad when you get to play folks early that can point out some things for you. No question they were able to do that for us."

The Raiders are led by 5-foot-8 senior Erin Grant, a first team all-Big 12 Conference selection last year who is considered among the nation's premier point guards.

Grant, who played this summer on the USA's gold medal team at the World University Games in Turkey, is Texas Tech's all-time leader in assists with 670, which ranks third in Big 12 history. She had 10 points and nine assists against LSU.

"She is one of the best point guards we've ever had in our program," Sharp said. "I think she runs a team as well as any point guard in the country."

Said Smith, "She's probably the best point guard in the country."

The Raiders' top inside player is 6-1 senior LaToya Davis, an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick last year. She had 21 points and 13 rebounds against LSU.

"She's a really strong, powerful player inside," Smith said.

While Smith heaped all kinds of praise on Texas Tech, Sharp also claimed to being impressed with the Redhawks -- who are coming off their best Division I season -- and said she expects her players to avoid taking Southeast for granted.

"My players will be serious about it," she said. "We understand what a great program they have. Anybody that plays as hard defensively as SEMO does and is as well coached as they are ... we have a lot of respect for them."

Texas Tech is a good team any place it plays, but the Raiders are especially tough at home. They are 88-9 at United Spirit Arena since the facility opened six years ago, including a 14-2 record there last season.

Sharp said she expects a crowd of at least 6,000 tonight -- which is a far cry from what Southeast is used to playing in front of.

"We have over 7,000 season tickets sold," Sharp said. "I don't know for sure what kind of crowd we'll have, with the high school football playoffs going on, but I imagine we'll have about 6,000 or 7,000."

Said Smith, "It's going to be a great atmosphere, something I think will be great for our players and can only help us."

Although Southeast is 57-32 under Smith over the past three years, the Redhawks have not fared particularly well in upset bids against similar national powers.

Southeast has played four other games against Big 12 teams since Smith took over the program -- and the closest the Redhawks have come is last year's 84-62 defeat at Oklahoma.

Other losses to Big 12 opponents have been 87-59 to Oklahoma in 2002-2003, 83-48 to Oklahoma in 2003-2004 and 78-42 to Kansas State in 2003-2004.

"We've played some other great teams, but they [Texas Tech] are the best team we've played since I've been here," Smith said.

Still, Smith is not about to concede anything -- even though probably everybody outside his program expects the Raiders to romp tonight.

"It's a big mountain to climb, but one of our goals is to climb that mountain," Smith said. "We want to go there to win. I told them [his players] if they're not ready to do that, don't waste any money on the plane ticket."

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