The all-time leader in national titles, an undefeated squad and last year's championship-game nemesis are among the teams standing in Southern Oregon's way if it hopes to again be one of the last four teams standing at the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championships.
The Raiders (27-4 overall) drew the No. 3 seed in the Cramer quadrant of the 32-team bracket, which was revealed Wednesday by the national office. They'll start at 8:15 a.m. Pacific Time on March 9 with a first-round matchup against the sixth-seeded Northwestern (Iowa) Red Raiders (19-11), who went 10-10 in the Great Plains Athletic Conference and received the seventh of 10 at-large bids.
The final Top 25 poll, which was also released Wednesday, had SOU down six spots to No. 12 and Northwestern ranked for the first time in over a month at No. 24.
The 26th annual tournament is held March 8-14 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa, where last year SOU advanced to the championship game for the first time before falling against Marian (Ind.).
Marian (30-3), ranked fourth overall, is the top seed in the Cramer bracket. But the winner of SOU-Northwestern will first have to go through second-seeded and fifth-ranked Southeastern (Fla.) (26-0) or seventh-seeded Valley City State (N.D.) (24-8) at 1:30 p.m. on March 10.
Top-ranked St. Francis (Ill.) (31-1), No. 2 Concordia (Neb.) (31-2) and No. 3 Saint Xavier (Ill.) (30-2) earned the other top seeds in the Naismith, Liston and Duer quadrants, respectively.
SOU's appearance in the tournament will be its third in a row and 10th overall. The Raiders are 5-4 in first-round games but went 16 years without a win until 2015.
They've never matched up with Northwestern, which has won a tourney-record five titles including three in a row from 2010-12. The Red Raiders last appeared in 2014, when they were defeated in the quarterfinal round, and are 46-8 all-time at the tournament.
The Red Raiders were up and down this season in the GPAC, which boasts a tournament-high five representatives along with the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference. They've lost five of their last eight games and went down in the GPAC tournament semifinals at Concordia, 88-51.
They feature a dynamic backcourt in 5-foot-10 sophomore guard Kassidy De Jong, who averages 18.1 points on 48-percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds, and 5-5 junior point guard Renee Maneman, who tops the NAIA at 7.5 assists per game. Inside, they have three players listed over 6-foot – freshman Anna Kiel (13.1 points, 6.3 rebounds), sophomore Haley Birks (12.7, 5.2) and sophomore Darbi Gustafson (12.7, 8.1). As a team, they have the fourth-best shooting percentage (46.1) in the nation.
Elsewhere in the Cascade Conference, No. 3 seed Eastern Oregon gets Dickinson State (N.D.) in the Naismith quadrant and No. 6 seed Oregon Tech gets Jamestown (N.D.) in the Liston.
The high-scoring backcourt combo of Ben DeSaulnier and Tristen Holmes that led Southern Oregon to an 18-13 record represented the Raiders on the All-Cascade Collegiate Conference team, which was announced Wednesday by the league office.
DeSaulnier, a junior wing from Philomath, cracked the 12-person list for the second season in a row, while Holmes, a sophomore point guard from Medford, landed on it for the first time.
Jay Mayernik, who keyed Northwest Christian's regular-season title run by leading the NAIA in rebounds (12.7) and ranking seventh in the CCC in scoring (16.0), received the player-of-the-year award. NCU's Luke Jackson was named coach of the year and Oregon Tech's Mitchell Fink was the newcomer of the year.
Though the Raiders will miss the national tournament for the first time in his career, DeSaulnier put together another solid campaign on offense. His average of 17.8 points per game was the fourth-highest in the circuit, and he also had top-10 marks in field-goal accuracy (52.8), free-throw accuracy (83.9) and steals (1.3). The career point total of 1,506 he'll bring into his senior year ranks sixth in SOU history.
Holmes' breakout season included clips of 14.6 points (12th CCC) and 4.8 assists (5th), and he ranked seventh in shooting percentage (53.1) and eighth in free-throw percentage (78.4). His scoring average shot up nearly 12 points compared to his freshman season, and in the final 14 games of the season he averaged 18.8.
DeSaulnier and Holmes were two of four non-seniors on the list. Twelve of the 13 players on SOU's roster are eligible to return next season.