Redhawks seek share of OVC title on road trip

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Southeast Missouri State women's basketball team, while perfect in Ohio Valley Conference home games this season, has been only average in OVC road play.

But as the Redhawks shoot for their second straight OVC regular-season title this week in Alabama, they left Cape Girardeau on Wednesday with plenty of confidence that they can seal the deal away from the Show Me Center.

That's largely because their most recent road performance was by far their best of the season, last Wednesday's 63-42 rout of Eastern Illinois.

"The Eastern Illinois game gives us confidence that we can play like that on the road again," said junior forward Missy Whitney, Southeast's leading scorer at 13.8 points per game.

Added senior center Lachelle Lyles, the nation's top rebounder with a 16.9 average: "We just have to go in with the same mindset we had at Eastern and we'll be fine."

Southeast and Murray State are tied for first place in the 11-team OVC with two games remaining.

The Redhawks (19-7, 14-4) visit fourth-place Samford (16-11, 11-7) at 5 p.m. today and 10th-place Jacksonville State (7-20, 4-14) at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Regardless of what happens this week, the Redhawks are assured of hosting a first-round OVC tournament game at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The top four finishers in the league play at home to begin the eight-team tourney.

But the Redhawks would love to prove just about all the prognosticators wrong by capturing back-to-back OVC regular-season crowns.

No matter what Murray State does -- the Racers host fifth-place Tennessee Tech today and visit sixth-place Tennessee-Martin Saturday -- the Redhawks will be no worse than co-champions if they win both games this week.

"I think that would be a tremendous accomplishment," Southeast acting head coach John Ishee said. "I think it's remarkable we're in the position we're in, considering the circumstances."

The Redhawks graduated four starters from last year's team that won the program's first OVC regular-season and tournament titles to make its initial NCAA Division I tournament appearance.

Off that squad, Southeast returned only two players who saw significant action: Lyles and sophomore point guard Tarina Nixon. They combined to average about 10 points per game.

As a result, Southeast was picked just fifth in the OVC's preseason poll. Most people outside the program did not expect the Redhawks to be title contenders.

"I think just about everybody counted us out," Nixon said.

Throw in the fact that head coach B.J. Smith never coached a regular-season game this year -- he was placed on administrative leave before the opener and resigned about a month later -- and the odds really seemed stacked against the Redhawks.

"What they've done has been unbelievable," said Ishee, who began the season as an assistant before being named to run the program after Smith's departure.

No matter what happens this week, Ishee said Southeast's players and his staff deserve countless praise.

But, Ishee emphasized, it would be nice to keep rolling. In order to do that, the Redhawks must improve on their 4-4 OVC road record, after they completed their league home schedule at 10-0.

Today's game should on paper be the toughest of the two this week.

Samford, the OVC preseason favorite, struggled for much of the conference season, but the Bulldogs have caught fire with five straight wins as they chase a top-four finish and tournament home game.

The Bulldogs, who lost to Southeast 70-66 in overtime on Dec. 19 at the Show Me Center, are led by all-OVC junior forward Alex Munday.

Munday, averaging 14 points per game, scored 23 points in the earlier meeting with the Redhawks.

"They're the hottest team in the league," Ishee said. "We'll have to be ready to play, but I know we will be."

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