On the Central Oklahoma campus, senior Olivia Mason has students come up to her and say they are going to come to the women’s basketball game.

Mason has heard those words more this week. Thursday night’s home game at Hamilton Field House against Emporia State is perhaps the most anticipated contest since the Bronchos joined the MIAA five years ago.

At 5:30 CT, Central Oklahoma, ranked No. 16 in the WBCA top 25, takes on No. 2 Emporia State.

The ranking and the recognition come from all the hard work Mason and the other seniors and juniors have put in to help Central Missouri rise to its current level.

“It brings us pride, especially the players who have been here through the losing and understanding what this conference is,” said Mason, who has played 95 games at Central Oklahoma. “Everybody around us is talking about us. People coming up and say they will be at the game and can’t wait to watch us play against Emporia. It is really exciting to see the growth of the team.”

The Bronchos have come far in five seasons. The first year in the MIAA, Central Oklahoma won nine games. The Bronchos increased the total to 12 and then 17 and last year, they won 19.

Central Oklahoma is 13-1 this season and 5-1 and in second place in the MIAA. Emporia State, 13-1 overall, is 4-1 and tied for third in the MIAA. Pittsburg State is 6-0 in conference play.

“Olivia was on one of those losing teams,” Central Oklahoma coach Guy Hardaker said. “Her freshman year, she started and we had a losing season that year.”

Hardaker credits Mason for bringing a tough mentality to the program that has helped changed things.

“I love the fact that she is a big part of what we have going on and giving us a chance to do something special,” Hardaker said.

Hardaker admits that he has talked to his players about the Emporia State game all week. But he doesn’t want them to view the contest as make or break. Whatever the outcome, there is still a lot of season left.

“We do need to see where we stack up and use it as a learning opportunity,” Hardaker said. “We are going into the game obviously to try to win. We are fortunate we get to play the first one at home. Realistically, Thursday is an opportunity for us to get better.

“The next day is an opportunity for us to get better. That is the mindset we are trying to take. We know we are nowhere near good enough to win a championship right now. We have got to get better every single day. If our kids can stay focused on that, I think our team has a real chance.”

Mason, though, can see the difference of stepping on the court against Emporia State compared to her freshman season.

“It has been interesting to see how we have changed and developed over the years,” said Mason, who has made 146 3-pointers, sixth in school history. “At the beginning, we were trying to win games. And now we want to win every game and compete with the Emporia, Pitt and Fort Hays States of the world.

“We need to outhustle our opponent. In the past years, they had more skill than us. This year we can match up a lot better against them. I think if we play hard and to our ability, we will be all right.”

Basketball showcase: Northern State at Augustana

Mack Arvidson leads Northern State into a big game at Augustana.
Ryan Robinson | Northern State Athletics
Mack Arvidson leads Northern State into a big game at Augustana.
The men’s basketball players at Northern State know who they play on Saturday. The Wolves travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and take on rival Augustana, the defending national champions.

The women’s and men’s doubleheader is part of the Division II Basketball Showcase that will be shown on WatchESPN. Tipoff for the women’s game is 5 p.m. ET and the men follow at 7 p.m.

“Our guys understand we are playing Augustana on Saturday, and you throw in it is an ESPN3 game,” Northern State coach Paul Sather said. “We want our focus on Friday at Wayne State. Wayne State anywhere is difficult. They really present some difficult matchups. They play with a smaller lineup. Our bigs will be chasing around 6-foot-4 guards. That game is just as important as the game on Saturday.”

Senior guard Mack Arvidson knows this routine well. It helped the Wolves reach the NCAA Division II tournament in the 2014-15 season.

At 11-5 overall and 7-3 in the NSIC, the Wolves understand the importance of each game if they want to make the postseason and have success in it.

“Our Friday game is always the focus Monday through Thursday,” Arvidson said. “We don’t get ahead of ourselves. As an older guy, I make sure we take one game at a time and don’t look ahead.”

Northern State is doing the things that make any basketball coach happy going into the heart of the season. The Wolves have won six of their last seven games because they are playing better defense.

“Our defensive identity is a lot better,” Arvidson said. “We were struggling early. We weren’t rebounding the way we needed to. We weren’t guarding the way we needed to. We made a point of that and the last few weeks we have really improved. We lost some close ones early, and we tried to turn that page.”

A good example of the Wolves’ improvement is their two games with U-Mary. On Dec. 3, Northern State lost 77-75 at home to U-Mary. In the rematch on Jan. 6 at U-Mary, the Wolves won 83-60.

“At the end of the day, if we want to be a factor in this league late in the year, we need to continue to get better defensively,” Sather said. “At their place, we were good on both ends of the floor. It was one of the few times we held a team in the 30s on field goal percentage.”

The only thing on Sather’s mind Thursday is to make sure his team is prepared for a Wayne State, a scrappy group that gives teams in the NSIC trouble.

“Some coaches are really good at juggling through opponents and talking about two opponents,” Sather said. “We don’t talk much about the Saturday game. They know what the Saturday game is. We really prepare for Friday the whole week. There might be some things we work on without talking about the Saturday opponent. Our main focus is always Friday.”

But when Saturday arrives, the Wolves will be ready for Augustana. It is a fun game for both of these South Dakota schools.

“They are our rival,” Arvidson said. “They are a fun team to play. Obviously, they lost some guys, but they have some familiar faces back as well. We know they are a good team. We will have to bring it. We are on the road. We will have to put all the pieces together and have a great game.”