BELLEVILLE — The Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm has spent the better part of the last three months proving that it is the best women's basketball team in Region 24.
Now the team must do it again.
Three days after an emotional Sophomore Day 83-70 win over Kaskaskia College, SWIC heads into the Region 24 Tournament as the top seed, just two wins away from a second straight trip to the NJCAA Division I National Tournament.
"We went in 1998-99 and 1999-2000 then again last year. It would be nice to go two straight years again,'' Blue Storm coach Mike Juenger said. "I thought that with the exception of a defensive lapse in the second half on Saturday that we played as well as we have all year. I think we're playing about as well as we can right now.
The Blue Storm (22-5) kicks off its postseason at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the first game of the Region 24 Tournament at Rend Lake College in Ina.
SWIC will play the winner of the play-in game between eighth-seeded Lincoln Trail College and ninth-seeded Shawnee College, which was held on Monday.
The Blue Storm is a combined 4-0 against Shawnee and Lincoln Trail. SWIC's two victories over Lincoln Trail were 84-39 and 88-46 and it defeated Shawnee 87-57 and 92-31.
"It's a concern because we beat them both by lopsided scores during the season. I don't want us to look past anyone because at this time of year anything happen,'' Juenger said. "Teams who are lower seeds can come in loose and ready to go. There isn't any pressure on them.''
Fourth seed and host Rend Lake will take on fifth seed Olney Central at 3 p.m. with two more first round games set for the evening session.
Semifinals are set for noon and 2 p.m. Thursday with the title game at 6 p.m. Friday. The champion and runnerup advance to the NJCAA National Tournament in Salina, Kan., March 13-18.
Also on tap at Rend Lake College this week is the Region 24 Men' s Tournament. SWIC opens play at 6 p.m. Wednesday against either Lincoln Trail or Southeastern Illinois.
The SWIC women rely on a guard-oriented offense led by sophomore All-American Janelle Cannon. The 5-foot-9 Cannon leads the nation in scoring (25.2) and is also ranked in the top 10 in both steals and assists.
O'Fallon native Danielle Duncan has also been a mainstay on the offensive end of the court and plays good defense.
But the Blue Storm's Region 24 title hopes rest heavily on the play of two freshmen -- LaTeesha Deloach and Breanna Baker.
Deloach, who has taken pressure off Cannon by running the point guard spot, has come alive on the offensive end of the floor in the past 10 games. Baker, a 6-2 forward has been inconsistent, but is coming off an 18-rebound effort against Kaskaskia.
"Bre didn't shoot the ball well, but she just had a monster game on the boards. If this team has a weakness it's rebounding and, if Bre plays like she can, we're going to be tough to beat,'' Juenger said
"Tee (Deloach) has to shoot the basketball. When she does, it takes pressure off Danielle and Janelle because teams can't double down on them.''
The 2012-13 season is the first that two teams from Region 24 advance to the national tournament. That will occur once every four years in the future.
As for Juenger and the Blue Storm, they're trying to think about one game at a time.
"I'm not sure if I like the new format or not. It's two teams at nationals now instead of one, but instead of double elimination, it's now one loss and you're done if you get there,'' Juenger said. "But we're not looking that far ahead.
"If we win our first game, we've got either Olney or Rend Lake in the semis and that would mean playing them on their home floor. If we play like we have recently, I like our chances.''