NSU opens conference play with title-game rematch vs. Houston Baptist

Keisha Lee[1]

Photo cutline: NSU’s Keisha Lee (right) returned from an injury and made her season debut Tuesday vs. Xavier. Photo credit: Gary Hardamon/NSU Photographic Services

Houston Baptist is one of Northwestern State’s newest conference opponents.

That doesn’t take away, however, from what the last two meetings between NSU and the Huskies have meant.

Houston Baptist and Northwestern State open Southland Conference women’s basketball play at 1 p.m. Saturday, squaring off for the third time in exactly 365 days in a rematch of March’s Southland Conference Tournament championship game won by NSU.

In some ways, the pair seem perfect for each other.

“We opened play with them last year and didn’t play them again until the championship game,” fourth-year co-head coach Brooke Stoehr said. “You see a similar style. You see two coaching staffs who want to execute and get a good shot every time down the floor. I think (Houston Baptist head coach) Donna (Finnie) does a great job getting her team prepared and ready to play. They’re extremely well coached.”

As the first Northwestern State athletic event of the 2016 calendar year, Saturday’s game is part of the “Sweet 2016” promotion. All fans under 16 years of age receive free admission. Additionally, any unused Northwestern State athletics ticket from the 2015 calendar year in any sport is valid for general admission. All in attendance receive a voucher for one general admission to any remaining game on the 2015-16 NSU basketball schedule. Finally, the first 100 season-ticket holders will receive a special 2016 NSU Athletics calendar.

Northwestern State (6-5) carries a season-long, three-game win streak into the matchup with the Huskies (5-5). Both teams have veteran rosters that helped them make runs to the tournament championship game in March as the No. 6 and No. 8 seeds, respectively.

NSU was picked second (coaches) and third (sports information directors) in the conference preseason polls while Houston Baptist was tagged sixth in both polls.

“I think a lot of people haven’t given them a lot of credit,” Stoehr said. “Going into the year, I ranked them higher than what they were picked. You don’t make the run they made and have four seniors returning who were a big part of that run and not in turn play the next season without a lot of confidence.”

Pacing those returners for Houston Baptist is 6-foot-1 senior forward Anna Strickland, who leads the Huskies in scoring (14.1 ppg), rebounding (12.9 rpg), assists (2.8 apg), steals (2.4 spg) and blocks (2.4 bpg).

Fellow seniors Rachel Arthur (12.2 ppg) and Monet Neal (11.8 ppg) give HBU two other double-figure-scoring options.

“They have two players, Neal and Strickland, who play with really high motors,” Stoehr said. “You look at their rebounding numbers, and that says it all. When you can get older players with that experience playing with that type of energy and effort, it drives the whole team. They are playing with confidence, and it starts with Strickland and the energy and effort she plays with every possession on both ends of the floor.”

Northwestern State is not lacking for confidence after putting together its first three-game win streak of the season to climb over .500 for the third time this season.

Senior guard Janelle Perez has scored in double figures in all three wins and has moved into 17th place on Northwestern State’s all-time scoring list with 1,314 career points.

Perez also got her longtime backcourt running mate, Keisha Lee, back from injury Tuesday against Xavier. Lee returned from a torn meniscus suffered the week before the season opener and played 26 minutes in the 73-57 win against the Gold Nuggets, scoring two points, handing out three assists, swiping four steals and grabbing five rebounds.

“We’re starting to hopefully get into a little bit of a groove,” Stoehr said. “We’ve all been anxious to get (Lee) back on the floor. It gives us another veteran on the floor who understands what we’re doing. She had her best offseason, had really prepared herself and was leading like a senior. We were really happy with where she was physically and mentally.

“To see her go down was disheartening, especially for her. She has worked herself back into shape. It’s one thing running and practicing as opposed to playing in a being game shape. She’ll get there. We play four games in eight days so it probably won’t take too long. It’s great to have her back out there. She gives us another dimension from a scoring standpoint, from an attacking standpoint and experience-wise defensively.”

Saturday’s game will air on the Demon Sports Network on www.nsudemons.com. Tony Taglavore, in his eighth season, will have the play-by-play call of the game.