West Texas A&M is right in its element when it comes to March Madness and the NCAA Division II national tournament.
It’s what they build for on a yearly basis and the numbers don’t lie.
When the No. 23-ranked Lady Buffs tip off at 2:30 p.m. today against Arkansas-Fort-Smith in the South Central Regional quarterfinals at the Rip Griffin Center at Lubbock Christian University, it will be a fifth straight regional tournament appearance and 24th in program history.
WT (27-4 overall) enters the regional winners of 12 straight games after toughing through a four-day, three-game grind where they took home a record 14th Lone Star Conference tournament title.
“It’s rewarding to know our team can grind like that,” said Kristen Mattio, whose team is 35-23 all-time in the NCAA tournament. “I coached in the RMAC (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) and it’s a totally different feel in this conference. It’s so physical here in the Lone Star Conference. If you can get past the LSC, than you have a great chance in the NCAA tournament because it prepares you well for that grind.”
WT did what it’s done all season in the LSC tournament. The Lady Buffs size was a difference, dominating points in the paint against Tarleton State in the championship game, 40-18.
The defense held Texas A&M-Commerce to 25 percent shooting, and the TexAnns to 37 percent.
Offensively, WT shot over 50 percent in all three wins while finding another weapon in point guard Megan Gamble. The sophomore gives WT another element on the offensive end. Gamble, who was the tournament MVP, was averaging 3.5 ppg before the LSC tourney before breaking out for 14.3 ppg over the three games against Midwestern State, TAMC and TSU.
“Megan’s choosing to be the aggressor on both ends,” Mattio said. “You have to give her credit defensively. She was big getting turnovers, but on the offensive side she is looking to be aggressive and attack. She’s getting her teammates involved and it is definitely paying off.”
“As for our defense, it’s what we focus on daily. We want our opponents to take the shots we want them to take and not the ones they want. I think we’ve done a decent job of rebounding and that will be key against Arkansas-Fort Smith.”
WT is the No. 2-seed in this regional, behind the No. 2-ranked Lubbock Christian Lady Chaps. The Heartland Conference champion and tournament champions are 28-1 overall this season, with the lone loss coming to No. 1-ranked Ashland.
The Eagles (31-0) are the top-seed in the tournament, winners of an incredible 68 straight games. That ties for the sixth longest streak in NCAA history, regardless of level or gender.
The Lady Buffs will face the No. 7-seed Arkansas-Fort Smith, which gave LCU all they could handle in a 69-61 loss in the Heartland Conference title game.
The Lady Lions (20-10) are coached by a former Lady Buff player Elena Lovato. Lovato played under Bill Schneider from 1997-1999, before transferring to Missouri Southern.
“This is an exciting time for our athletic department overall,” said Lovato, who makes her first coaching appearance in a regional. “Our schedule was very tough. We had a lot of new players and I think we grew from the adversity.”
While scouting the Lady Buffs this week, Lovato was very impressed by what she’s seen. Playing in Canyon, Lovato knows the tradition and what to expect from a quality program.
“WT is a special team,” Lovato said. “They are very deep and they are very big. They have great chemistry and move the ball better than most. They have a lot of tradition that is always around. They do things the right way. We have to limit our mistakes and our defense has to travel. We’ll have to rebound very well.”
UAFS is led by Tayla Taylor, a first-team All-Heartland Conference selection. The 6-foot-1 senior post is averaging 13.4 points a game with 9.3 rebounds a game.
“Arkansas-Fort Smith is a very talented team,” Mattio said. “They have good post players that are mobile. They score around the rim, and their guards can flat out shoot. They can also drive to the basket. They are gritty defensively, and they don’t let you have any easy buckets. That’s how they flustered LCU in the Heartland championship game.”
West Texas A&M Lady Buffs
Overall Record: 27-4
Head coach: Kristen Mattio (3rd Year)
Player Pos. Ht. Yr. RPG PPG
Lexy Hightower G 5-8 So. 2.6 14.2
Madison Parker F 5-10 Sr. 6.3 10.7
Deleyah Harris G 5-9 Jr.4.5 8.2
Tiana Parker P 6-5 Jr. 5.5 7.5
Megan Gamble PG 5-7 So. 2.7 4.5
Overall Record: 20-10
Head Coach: Elena Lovato (2nd Year)
Player Pos. Ht. Yr. RPG PPG
Tayla Taylor F 6-1 Sr. 9.3 13.4
Lundon Williams G 5-6 Jr. 1.9 9.6
Ellie Lehne F 6-2 Jr. 2.0 6.9
Daijah Brown G 5-8 Jr. 2.2 6.1
Alexsis Brown G 5-6 So. 4.0 6.0
NCAA Division II South Central Regional
at Rip Griffin Center, Lubbock Christian University
No. 6 MSU Denver (22-8) vs. Colorado State-Pueblo (25-6), noon
No. 7 Arkansas Fort Smith (20-10) vs. No. 2 West Texas A&M (27-4), 2:30 p.m.
No. 8 Tarleton State (20-11) vs. 1. Lubbock Christian (28-1), 6 p.m.
No. 5 Black Hills State (24-7) vs. Angelo State (22-6), 8:30 p.m.
MSU Denver-CSUP winner vs. UAFS-WT winner, 5 p.m.
TSU-LCU winner vs. BHS-ASU winner, 7:30 p.m.
7 p.m. Monday
The game: Arkansas-Fort Smith Lady Lions (20-10) vs. No. 23 West Texas A&M Lady Buffs (27-4), in a NCAA Division II South Central Regional quarterfinal game, 2:30 p.m. today, Rip Griffin Center, Lubbock Christian University.
Noteworthy: The Lady Buffs make their 24th NCAA Division II national tournament appearance.
Next Up: The UAFS-WT winner faces the MSU Denver-CSU-Pueblo winner at 5 p.m. Saturday in a South Central Regional semifinal.
On the air: The game will be on radio on KPRF (98.7 FM) with Luke Kinsey (play-by-play) and Kent Johnson (color commentary).