Can the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville women's basketball team maintain its momentum?
Coach Paula Buscher's Cougars (11-18) have won four in a row and six of seven, and they've needed every one of them.
It wasn't until a 67-58 triumph over Eastern Illinois in the regular-season finale Saturday that SIUE clinched a berth in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
Sixth-seeded Jacksonville State (12-17) will provide the competition in the opening round of the tourney at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The seventh-seeded Cougars dropped their only other meeting against the Gamecocks, 71-68 on Jan. 13 in Jacksonville, Ala.
"I think you have two teams in ourselves and Jacksonville that are playing very well right now," said Buscher, whose club was a miserable 5-17 on Feb. 1. "The big question is: What team is going to show up the first game of the tournament? That's the biggest thing That's going to make for a great game and a fun tournament atmosphere."
Like the Cougars, Jacksonville State has turned the tables on a sluggish start to the season by winning eight of its last 12.
"I'm pleased with our regular season, particularly when you factor in where we were at the end of the first week of January," Gamecocks coach Rick Pietri said. "We were 4-13 overall at that time and 4-4 in this conference --and coming off a 42-point loss at Belmont.
"I'm pleased the way our players have responded and been able to find a way to win eight of our last 12 games to put us into a position to be in the conference tournament. That's going to be a new experience. There's not a player on this roster who has participated in a conference tournament."
The winner of the game Wednesday will advance to the quarterfinals and face third-seeded Tennessee Tech at 2 p.m. Thursday. The semifinals are at noon and 2 p.m. Friday, with the title game scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.
The tournament champion will earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
SIUE junior Tierny Austin, the Cougars' leading scorer (13 points per contest) and rebounder (6.9), did not play in the first game against Jacksonville State because of an injury. She has averaged 11.5 points since returning four games ago, but was held to three by Eastern Illinois.
"Tierny is a huge player for us," Buscher said. "We've got a lot of good guards in our league, and I think she's one of them. Unfortunately for that young lady, her injury has not allowed her to practice a ton, and she was out for quite a while. I think that's hurt her, but at the same time, she's one of our toughest competitors and she always makes a difference in the game."
Sophomore guard Coco Moore averages 11.6 points per game for the Cougars, while 6-foot-1 freshman forward Micah Jones averages 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. Jones had 17 points and eight rebounds to power SIUE in its conquest of Eastern.
Junior Ashley Capotosto, a 6-0 forward, has scored in double figures in seven of her last eight games and contributed 13 points and eight rebounds vs. Eastern. Sophomore guard Jessie Wendt leads the Cougars in 3-pointers with 35.
Buscher said a key for the Cougars has been their ability to focus on the here and now.
"The mentality that we've had ... is the next game. What do we have coming at us?" Buscher said. "We're guaranteed 40 minutes. That's it. So what we want for our team is to go out there and play as hard as they can, compete like they can."
Jacksonville State is guided by 5-8 junior Candace Morton (16.7 points), 5-9 sophomore Destany McLin (14.2 points) and 6-0 junior Miranda Cantrell (10.3 points, 7.4 rebounds). Morton leads the squad with 39 3-pointers and 5-7 freshman Kelly Naughton has a team-high 96 assists.
"We're playing a team that beat (Tennessee) Martin. Nobody else has done that," Pietri said, referring to the Cougars' 65-62 win Feb. 8 in Edwardsville that handed the Skyhawks (22-7, 15-1) their only loss in the OVC. "And not only that, they held them to 62 (points). Nobody else has done that, either."