Seniors lead the charge into postseason

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

At the heart of a successful season lies six seniors.

While a few underclassmen have made solid contributions this season, there is no doubt Southeast Missouri State's heart and soul lies with its six seniors.

Now, having already helped the Redhawks make history by tying for the program's first Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship, those six -- four of them starters, the others key reserves -- plan to reserve their place in school lore one more time.

The second-seeded Redhawks (19-8) open the eight-team OVC tournament tonight at home against seventh-seeded Murray State (11-16) -- and they plan on winning the title for the first time ever, which would give them their initial NCAA Division I tournament berth.

"We're really proud of it [the regular-season championship], to do something for the first time in the history of the school," center Tatiana Conceicao said. "But now we have to go and win the tournament."

Added forward Natalie Purcell, "This is great, but we're still focusing on the big games in the tournament. That's what we really want."

Southeast coach B.J. Smith knows how much his seniors -- the others are forward Simone Jackson and point guard Wanika Owsley, along with backup guards Katrisha "Red" Dunn and Tiffanne Ryan -- have meant in helping establish the Redhawks among the OVC's elite programs.

Conceicao, Purcell, Jackson and Owsley all also started most of last year, while Dunn and Ryan came off the bench, as the Redhawks turned in their best Division I record, going 22-8 and finishing second in the OVC's regular season for just the second time.

But that campaign ended in heartbreak with a double-overtime loss to Eastern Kentucky in the finals of the OVC tournament, after the Colonels hit a tying shot at the regulation buzzer.

"That hurt everybody, but it probably made these seniors even stronger," Smith said. "I can't begin to say what they've mean to our program. All six of them have been tremendous, and not just on the court. What a great group of ladies.

"No doubt, they have been the heart and sole of our team."

The seniors -- all but Ryan joined the program last year as junior college transfers -- have each brought something different to the Redhawks.

Conceicao has provided much of the scoring, leading the team each of the past two seasons, including last year when she was the OVC's player of the year. She is averaging 18.9 points, while also pulling down 6.6 rebounds.

Purcell has provided long-range scoring and rebounding. She set a school record with se

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