Otahkians close in on first-round home game

Thursday, February 26, 2004

If Southeast Missouri State University's Otahkians can post their eighth consecutive victory today, they'll assure themselves of a home game for the first round of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

The third-place Otahkians (15-10, 10-4) visit Murray State (11-14, 7-7) for a 5:15 p.m. tipoff. They close out the regular season Saturday at Tennessee-Martin before beginning OVC tournament play Tuesday.

Barring some unusual circumstances, Southeast is already virtually locked into a first-round tournament home contest, a reward that goes to the top four finishers. But the Otahkians would like to end any remaining suspense today.

"It's important for us to be at home for the first game of the tournament and we want to get it over with," senior forward Yashika Sidbury said. "Seven in a row is good, but we don't want to stop there."

Said coach B.J. Smith: "We need to win for a variety of reasons. It would be nice to lock up that home game, we sure want to keep our streak going and with the kind of early schedule we played, we'd love to go into the tournament with the same record as last year. Plus, a win ties us for second place."

The Otahkians, who trail Tennessee Tech by one-half game in the battle for second, entered the league tourney with a 17-10 mark last season. They advanced to the championship game, where they lost to Austin Peay, and finished 19-11.

Smith doesn't expect Southeast to have an easy time with Murray State, even though the Otahkians beat the Racers 74-60 on Feb. 7 in Cape Girardeau.

Under first-year coach Joi Alexander, Murray State has already improved considerably from recent seasons. After finishing eighth in what was then a nine-team league the last two years, the Racers are currently tied for sixth out of 11 squads. They were picked ninth in the preseason coaches' poll.

"She's done a good job with them and they're one of the most improved teams in the league," Smith said. "They've played a lot of people close and they'll play well at home. They're a scary team."

Smith credits much of the Otahkians' recent success to the fact they have finally been able to formulate a legitimate 10-player rotation.

Several bench players struggled early in the season and sophomore guard Tiffanne Ryan, who started much of last year, missed nine games and countless practice time with an ankle injury.

But Ryan is now healthy and some of the other reserves -- most notably juniors Brandi Russia and Miah Shelford -- are playing much better, which means Smith is able to substitute without being hurt.

"I think a big thing is that we're finally 10 deep now, which is important to play the kind of style we want," Smith said. "We've been playing well and we just want to keep it going."

Junior guard Sami Jo Cotton (11.2 ppg), senior guard Kenja White (11 ppg) and junior center Chandra Brown (10 ppg) are Southeast's leading scorers, while Sidbury (9.8) is nearing double figures after a recent hot stretch.

With 62 3-pointers, junior college transfer Cotton is now second on Southeast's all-time single-season list. She needs just seven more 3-pointers to break the record.

Cotton has been the OVC newcomer of the week five times while Brown -- another junior college transfer -- has won the award three times, including this week.

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