When talking to Southern Oregon University head women’s basketball coach Alex Carlson last week after his team learned its NAIA Division II National Tournament status, I couldn’t help but pick up on something he kept on saying.
There was, understandably, the confidence he has in his team.
But it was the simple fact of how Carlson talked about if his No. 3-seeded Raiders play their game, they’re game for just about anybody they will play over the next week, starting with tonight’s 7:15 p.m. national tournament opener against No. 7 seed University of Antelope Valley (Calif.) in Sioux City, Iowa.
That game starts, as one could probably surmise, with the two seniors Carlson has patrolling the backcourt for him this season.
And if those two catch fire, watch out.
To say Remi Mejia and Toria Bradford are important to Southern Oregon’s success is like suddenly declaring that Steph Curry or Dame Lillard are good shooters. It’s about as obvious as obvious gets.
But it’s completely on point.
So often this season Mejia and Bradford have been the driving forces for an SOU team that has been ranked no worse than No. 15 nationally all season long.
They’re the all-Cascade Conference backcourt that makes the Raiders tick.
Mejia, a standout at South Medford High during her prep basketball days, has made the most of her one season at SOU, leading the conference in scoring at 17.5 points per game and shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range.
Bradford, a three-year starter for the Raiders after spending her freshman season at Clackamas Community College, has been a do-it-all kind of point guard ever since showing up in Ashland in 2015.
Between the two, they have led the Raiders to 27 wins in 31 games this season.
Starting with tonight’s Naismith bracket opener, SOU hopes that win total gets even closer to 30.
By all accounts, Carlson expects a fast-paced game where both SOU and Antelope Valley (22-6 overall) — which will be playing in its first-ever national tournament game tonight — will be looking to get up and down and pushing the ball in transition. “It should be a fun to watch, because it's going to be uptempo and both teams try to get a lot of the same things done,” Carlson added.
That not only puts the emphasis on either defense trying to get stops, but also for the Raiders to make shots.
That’s something that SOU wasn’t able to do down the stretch against Eastern Oregon in the CCC tournament title game on Feb. 26, a game in which EOU ended up winning 63-52.
You know they don’t want to see that happen again.
And if it does, then SOU’s season suddenly comes to an end in Iowa once again.
But the thing that has been so impressive about this Raiders team is that they’ve shown an ability to rebound from tough losses. Three of their four losses have come against the same Eastern Oregon team that is also looking to do big things at the national tournament.
The other came against rival Oregon Tech on a night where, outside of the first quarter, SOU’s shooting was far from where it usually is.
So, basically, when SOU plays its game, hits its shots and does what it has done for a good portion of the last 31 games, then the Raiders are pretty tough to beat.
Outside of Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon has beaten every opponent in its path to nationals.
By my count, that’s pretty good.
"We think we're playing really well coming into this,” Carlson said. “We haven't shot it as well as we're capable of, but if we can make shots then we're good enough in other areas to hang with anyone. I think this team can make a run, but we're kind of taking the mindset that it doesn't matter who else is in the bracket unless you can get the (game) in front of you. At this tournament you have to be prepared for a fight every game."
One game can very well spell the end to SOU’s 2017-18 season.
But one game can also be the start of something that sees the Raiders among the final teams standing in Iowa.
That’s the beauty of March basketball. And it’s completely understandable as to why Carlson thinks that his team, led by Mejia and Bradford, can be a squad that is in Iowa for more than just a day or two.
Contact Danny Penza at 541-775-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.