Redhawks face improved Salukis

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Southern Illinois brings a 3-0 record into tonight's rivalry game.

Southern Illinois doesn't appear to be nearly the easy mark it has been for other women's basketball teams in recent years.

And that has Southeast Missouri State coach B.J. Smith wary entering tonight's 7:30 p.m. tipoff at the Show Me Center, as the Redhawks (2-2) square off with the Salukis (3-0).

"They are really improved," Smith said. "It's going to be a big challenge for us and we'll have to play well to win."

The Salukis have won three straight games to start a season for the first time since 1991-1992, and they have already matched their victory total from each of the past two years, when they posted identical 3-24 records and combined for a 3-33 Missouri Valley Conference mark.

SIU has not reached double figures in wins in any season since 1997-1998, which is also the last time the Salukis won more than five MVC games.

But the Salukis, whose last winning season was an 18-10 mark in 1995-1996, have apparently been rejuvenated by second-year coach Dana Eikenberg.

Eikenberg, who revitalized the struggling Missouri-Kansas City program before coming to SIU, took her lumps in her first season with the Salukis.

But several of her top players from UMKC who transferred to SIU when she took the job could not participate in games last year under NCAA transfer rules, although they practiced with the team.

Now eligible, those transfers have helped turn things completely around for the Salukis, at least during the early part of the season.

"I knew they were going to be better, because of the players they had sitting out last year," Smith said.

The Salukis have three players averaging in double figures offensively, and all three formerly played for Eikenberg at UMKC.

Carlai Moore, a 6-foot-1 junior forward, leads the way at 19.7 points per game as she is shooting 51.2 percent from the field.

Jayme Sweere, a 5-9 sophomore guard, is next at 14.3 points per game, followed 5-6 sophomore point guard Erin Pauk (12.3 ppg).

Elyse Morris, a 5-9 sophomore guard and one of just three returning players for the Salukis, averages a team-leading seven rebounds per game while coming off the bench.

"I've watched a lot of tape of their team, and they're good," Smith said. "They're playing with a lot of energy and heart. I think they have a chip on their shoulders because of the last few years."

SIU is coming off Friday's 82-61 home thrashing of what is expected to be a solid South Alabama team, and the Salukis also own a 94-77 victory at Murray State, which like Southeast competes in the Ohio Valley Conference.

"They beat a very good South Alabama team bad," Smith said.

Southeast is coming off Saturday's 79-66 home victory over Division II power Henderson State, which came one day after the Redhawks suffered a 90-87 double-overtime home loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

With a tough rematch looming at Wisconsin-Milwaukee Friday night prior to the start of OVC play on Dec. 8, Smith believes tonight's game carries added importance.

"It sure doesn't end our season no matter what happens, but you have to hold serve at home," Smith said. "I think it's a huge game for us."

The Redhawks are once again led by senior forward/center Tatiana Conceicao, the reigning OVC player of the year who currently leads the league in scoring with 20 points per game. She is shooting 54.9 percent from the field.

Also averaging in double figures are senior forward Simone Jackson (14.8 ppg, 58.5 percent shooting) and senior forward Natalie Purcell (11 ppg).

Senior point guard Wanika Owsley has 28 assists to lead the OVC with an average of seven per game.

"We're not playing nearly as well as we need to," Smith said. "We just have to start executing better."

Although SIU leads the all-time series against Southeast 23-5, the Redhawks have won the past three meetings, including the last two years under Smith.

"They're close to us (in distance) and it's always a big game when the schools play each other in any sport," Smith said.

If statistics bear out, the contest could be quite an entertaining one for fans to watch. SIU is averaging 77 points per game, just ahead of Southeast's 76.2.

"I really think it has the makings of a very good game," Smith said. "They're so much better than they've been, and a good crowd would really help us."

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