ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon women’s basketball team had known for close to a week that its spot at the NAIA Division II National Tournament was already locked up.
When Wednesday arrived, the Raiders found out what path they will need to take to try and bring a national title back to Ashland.
Southern Oregon received the No. 3 seed in the Naismith Region and will open its national tournament campaign against sixth-seeded University of Antelope Valley (Calif.) at 7:15 p.m. next Wednesday night.
Coming in at No. 10 nationally in the last NAIA coaches poll — which was also released on Wednesday — a No. 3 seed was pretty much what SOU head coach Alex Carlson was expecting to see when the brackets came out.
“Kind of right around that area, yeah,” Carlson said when asked about his team’s seed. “At this time of year, you’re just excited to be a part of the tournament. Everybody has a chance to win it. It’s that time of year where you’re taking on all comers.”
Top-ranked Southeastern (Fla.) (29-0 overall), the only unbeaten team in the 32-team field, is the No. 1 seed in SOU’s pod of eight teams.
If Southern Oregon gets past Antelope Valley in the opening round, the Raiders will face the winner of No. 2 seed Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.) and No. 7-seeded Indiana East next Friday afternoon.
“One thing like last year where we played a team from Iowa in the first round, we’re kind of excited to play a team that has a similar travel plan,” Carlson said with a laugh as he referenced Antelope Valley making the trip from Southern California. “We’ve had 10-hour bus rides three out of the last four weeks. In the 48-hour trip we made (to Eastern Oregon this week), 22 hours were spent in the bus. We’re just hoping to get healthy and get prepared to play.”
Just two years removed from an appearance in the national title game, the Raiders (27-4 overall) head to Iowa on the back of their third straight appearance in the Cascade Collegiate Conference Tournament title game appearance.
Three of SOU’s four losses on the season came to CCC regular-season and tournament champion Eastern Oregon, which enters the national as a No. 2 seed with a 30-2 record.
Outside of losing all three of its games against EOU this season, SOU’s only other loss of the season came to arch-rival Oregon Tech on Jan. 31.
There is, of course, a chance that the Raiders and the Mountaineers meet for a fourth time this season. Seeing as Eastern Oregon, which got a No. 2 seed on Wednesday, is located on the other side of the page in the Duer Bracket, the only way SOU would see its CCC rival is if both teams advanced to the national title game on March 13.
“Across the board, there’s a ton of good teams, but we’re just very focused on our first game,” Carlson said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned playing in this tournament. You can’t put too much in a matchup until it’s a reality for you.”
The Raiders, who have recorded at least 17 CCC wins in each of Carlson’s three seasons at the helm, enter the national tournament after record the second-best scoring margin in the conference at plus-16.1 points per game.
“We’re a team that’s tough to prepare for,” Carlson said. “We feel very confident. We’re coming off a game where we didn’t shoot the ball well. Now we just have to get hot and hope our shooters come through at this part of the season. We feel like with Remi (Mejia) and Toria (Bradford) and some of our young kids off the bench, if they get hot they’ll be as dangerous as anybody.”
Antelope Valley (22-5), which added a women’s basketball program just two years ago and was ranked in the NAIA Top 25 for the first time ever two weeks ago, advanced to the national tournament after winning both the California Pacific Conference regular-season and tourney titles this year.
The Pioneers, ranked 24th in the nation entering the NAIA tournament, have won 10 straight games dating back to the third week of January.
Southern Oregon and Antelope Valley have one common opponent this season: UC Merced. SOU beat UC Merced in its regular-season opener, while the Pioneers recorded wins in all three games they played the Bobcats, including a 65-54 win in the Cal Pac tournament title game on Tuesday.
“In the little film we have seen (of Antelope Valley), they’re an up-tempo team that likes to pressure. It’s kind of strength-on-strength and you’re throwing a similar style out there,” Carlson said. “We feel like if we do what we need to, we’ll be successful.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.