They dressed to the nines for Tuesday night’s opening banquet at the Sioux City Convention Center, kicked back to watch some first-round action featuring Cascade Conference rival Oregon Tech Wednesday morning and marched around the Tyson Events Center court during the opening ceremonies and parade of champions Wednesday night.

Now it’s finally time for the Southern Oregon University Raiders to play their most important basketball game of the season, followed (they hope) by several more games even more significant.

The SOU women will take on Northwestern of Orange City, Iowa, in the first round of the 32-team NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Championships today in Sioux City, Iowa, where the Raiders advanced to the championship game a year ago before losing to Marian. The third-seeded Raiders (27-4) and sixth-seeded Red Raiders (19-11) are scheduled to tip-off at 8:15 a.m. Pacific, with the winner slated to play the winner between second-seeded and undefeated Southeastern and seventh-seeded Valley City State Friday afternoon.

“It’s definitely a neat thing and kind of a celebration of being here,” SOU coach Alex Carlson said of the pre-tournament festivities. “Not too many people get to come back here, so you’ve got to make sure you walk that fine line of making sure you’re ready and prepare but also know that you enjoy this experience because it is a very special thing. I think we do a good job with that. The girls had a great time at the banquet (Tuesday) night, had a lot of fun and got to see the other teams. At this level, you read about the teams like Southeastern that you know is going to be good, and getting an actual chance to size them up and meet them is a real neat experience.”

Southern Oregon, ranked 12th in the final Top 25 poll, will be taking the court for the first time since losing to Eastern Oregon in the CCC tournament championship game Feb. 27, a setback that snapped the Raiders’ five-game win streak. That loss came after SOU and EOU finished as co-Cascade Conference regular-season champions, and the Raiders locked up an automatic berth to nationals by making it back to the CCC title game.

Northwestern, meanwhile, ranked 24th, received the seventh of 10 at-large bids after finishing fifth in the Great Plains Athletic Conference and losing to second-ranked Concordia in the conference tournament semifinals. The Red Raiders are mainstays at nationals, where they’ve won an NAIA-best five championships, the last coming in 2012.

Carlson, who led SOU to its first national championship game appearance as a rookie head coach, said the Raiders’ biggest challenge today will be Northwestern’s size.

“They’re really big,” he said. “They’re young as a team — they only have one senior and she comes off the bench and doesn’t play much — but they’ve got a couple really talented posts that are big and pretty athletic, so that’ll be tough. And their point guard leads the nation in assists at over seven a game. So they’ve got some good bigs inside that do a good job and then they’ve got a good point guard to give them the ball, and that’s a good combination to have.”

The point guard Carlson’s referring to is junior Renee Maneman, and the Red Raiders’ leading scorer is sophomore guard Kassidy De Jong, who averages 18.2 points and 7.6 rebounds. Sophomore post Darbi Gustafson, who’s 6-foot-1, averages 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds.

Southern Oregon is led by CCC Player of the Year Autumn Durand, a 5-foot-10 senior forward who averages 16.8 points and 7.7 rebounds and shoots 52 percent from the floor. Also for SOU, Sydney Mullings averages 12.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, Tiani Bradford 10.5 points and Majerle Reeves has hit 90 3-pointers for a team that ranks ninth nationally for treys made per game (8.9).

The Raiders are built to run and bully teams into playing their style by employing a devastating full-court press, which is the main reason why SOU ranks fifth in the nation in steals per game (14.7). Carlson says that strategy has worked well all season and the Raiders don’t plan on switching things up much now, especially against a young, big Northwestern squad that may be susceptible to pressure defense.

“We just plan on pressuring full-court,” he said. “That’s our plan, to beat them up in the backcourt and to get them into an up-and-down game. And we feel like if we get into an up-and-down game we can beat anybody. More so than anything, pushing the pace and making it a fast-paced game.”

If Southern Oregon beats Northwestern and Southeastern (Florida) avoids what would be a major upset, it’ll set up an intriguing round of 16 matchup.

Carlson said it’s too early to start looking ahead to second-round possibilities, but added that if the Raiders do win this morning they’ll prepare for their next opponent in a hotel room this afternoon, a somewhat unconventional practice that served them well during last year’s tournament run. In a case of necessary improvisation, the Raiders move furniture around and walk through their next opponent’s out-of-bounds plays and offensive sets.

“We really don’t want our kids on their feet and doing too awful much when they’re playing this many games,” Carlson said. “If things go well we’ll end up playing three games in three days here, so saving legs and being fresh is huge. That’s how we did it last year and we think it’s pretty effective.”

Does last year’s run to the final give the Raiders a mental edge? Carlson says yes.

“I think it’s a huge edge,” he said. “Our kids know what it takes to be successful and have been here before and have been through the paces. They know how hard it is to knock out a team here, because when you win a game here you’re ending people’s seasons and ending people’s basketball careers, too. No one’s going to quit, so knowing that you’ve got to absorb runs and keep coming at teams is the only way to do it.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.