STEPHENVILLE - It all comes down to this. For No. 15 Tarleton State (25-6), the top seed in the South Central Regional Tournament, to reach its third NCAA Division II men’s Elite Eight in four years, the Texans must first overcome one final test - Central Oklahoma.
And what a test it is. Third-seeded UCO (27-5) continued adding to its school-record for wins in a season on Sunday, taking down Northwest Missouri State, 73-59, in the first semifinal for its 27th victory.
The Bronchos have already won two titles this season, taking honors in the North Division of the Lone Star Conference, then capturing the LSC Tournament crown. UCO has now won nine in a row and 17 of its last 18.
Tarleton followed the Broncho win with a semifinal victory of its own, a come-from-behind 80-72 defeat of Southwest Baptist. The Texans trailed by 10 in the second half, but outscored the Bearcats 42-24 over the final 16:49.
Tonight, the Texans and Bronchos meet in a grudge match that will determine the South Central Regional championship. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. at Wisdom Gym.
The LSC and South Central powers have already met twice this season, with Tarleton taking a 73-70 overtime win in conference crossover play in Stephenville on Jan. 3, and UCO winning the re-match in the LSC semifinals 11 days ago, 77-65.
The Bronchos have the 2008 LSC title, but it’s Tarleton that has twice won the regional and traveled to the Elite Eight - first in 2005, and again in 2006. Central Oklahoma coach Terry Evans knows it’s no secret Tarleton has been where past Broncho teams have only dreamed of going.
“The last few years, it’s been mostly us and Tarleton (from the LSC),” Evans said. “Unfortunately for us, it’s mostly been Tarleton. We’ve been fortunate enough to beat them numerous times, but they always seem to win the regional. I think now it’s our turn to take that step for our program.”
Tarleton coach Lonn Reisman hopes to avoid witnessing the Bronchos taking that step tonight, but knows his team faces a difficult challenge.
“Central Oklahoma has an excellent ball club,” said Reisman. “They know us very well, and we know them. What we have is the two best teams in this area of the country fighting for something special. It’s very difficult to reach this point, and I think it will be a terrific ball game.”
UCO is in the regional final for the first time under Evans, while Reisman and Tarleton have reached this point four times in the last six seasons. Tonight’s showdown marks the third time in the last six years the championship has been between two LSC schools. Tarleton has been involved in all three, winning one of the previous two. Overall, the Texans are 2-1 in the regional finals.
Both teams have had to persevere through their own set of challenges to reach the regional championship. Several UCO players fell ill after the team’s first evening meal upon arriving in Stephenville on Thursday, and were a shadow of themselves while holding off Fort Hays State, 65-64, in the tournament opener Saturday. Once healthy, the Bronchos returned to form and overcame an early 21-7 deficit against NWMSU. Tarleton had to find a way to peak at just the right time after losing four of its last eight contests in the regular season and the LSC Tournament. Both clubs have had to come from behind in the second half of both tournament wins.
UCO is led by LSC North Player of the Year and LSC Tournament MVP Sam Belt, who scored 14 against Fort Hays and 15 in the defeat of Northwest Missouri. Belt also finished with seven and 11 rebounds, respectively.
Freshman Michael Sosanya has also been a key cog, scoring 15 and grabbing nine boards in the opener before posting 10 and six in the semifinal.
Brian Walker was the hero in the second round, drilling back-to-back 3-point baskets in the closing minutes to put the Bronchos ahead for good. Eric Cazenave, another solid contributor all season, bounced back from a four-point Saturday performance with 14 on Sunday.
Tarleton has its own laundry list of players who have stepped up in the playoffs. Avery Patterson started hot against St. Mary’s Saturday, hitting his first three attempts from beyond the arc on his way to 23 points. He then finished hot on Sunday, scoring 10 of his 14 after halftime.
Jeffrey Henfield was struggling from the field before connecting for a game high 20 against SBU, and big-man Terrence Gamble has made his case as the toughest match-up at the regional. The 6-10, 260-pound senior center dropped 17 points through the net in the opener, while grabbing 10 boards. He was in foul trouble against SBU, but still managed to score 14 while collecting six rebounds.
The other starting post, Eric Williams, was a non-factor because of fouls Saturday, but returned to form with 12 points and 13 boards on Sunday. Tarleton also picked up 18 points and five assists from the point guard position, where Mike Daniels and Limar Wilson continue to split time. Daniels scored 11 and had a pair of dishes, while Wilson tallied four points and three assists.
“These are both outstanding teams,” said Evans. “We’re both built around defense and rebounding, both are well coached and both have talented players. It’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous challenge.”
In the 2006 regional hosted by SBU in Bolivar, Mo., the Texans ended the Bronchos’ season with a quarterfinal victory en route to their second straight South Central crown. The Bronchos avenged that loss by slamming the door on the Texans in the first round of the 2007 LSC Tournament.
Tonight, once again, either Tarleton or UCO will celebrate moving on. And once again, one will see its season come to an end.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotion on the court, and I know there will be a lot of emotion shown by our fans,” Reisman said. “It’s going to be a very intense and emotional game, and I hope you will be able to see the emotion in our team. Everything is magnified in a championship game, and it should be a great event for both the university and our community.”