At different points in the game, Pittsburg State 5-foot-7 sophomore guard Mikaela Burgess will match up against Sioux Falls 5-foot-7 senior guard Taylor Varsho in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II Central Regional.
They are similar players, Pittsburg State coach Lane Lord said. Both are averaging 18 points per game and are excellent long-range shooters. Varsho has made 113 three-pointers and Burgess has drained 95.
“It will be fun to watch them match up. It is going to be treat for the fans,” Lord said.
Burgess, though, will have one significant advantage when the two teams tipoff at 7 p.m. ET Friday. The game will be played at John Lance Arena on the campus of Pittsburg State. The Central Regional runs Friday, Saturday and Monday.
Despite getting the No. 2 seed because of the loss to Emporia State in the championship game of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association Tournament, Pittsburg State was able to host the Central Regional. Emporia State, the top seed, couldn’t host because its basketball arena is being used for the Kansas 4A, Division II high school state basketball tournament.
“Anytime you get a chance to play in front of your home crowd as oppose to driving a long distance and not having that kind of fan support helps,” Burgess said. “We have great crowds here. It is awesome to get that tremendous support.”
“We are extremely excited to have this opportunity. This is our fourth NCAA tournament in the last five years, but we haven’t been able to host," Lord added. "Our community is fired up. I know we will have tremendous fan participation. They are excited. They love our team. Our community really rallies around our team. We are glad to bring the NCAA Tournament to the community.”
The Gorillas put themselves in position to play host by going on a 15-game winning streak before losing to Emporia State.
The hot streak started after an 87-69 loss at home to Central Missouri on Jan. 7. At that point, Pittsburg State was 11-4 overall and 5-4 in the MIAA.
“I felt like our seniors, Kylie Gafford and Cathy Brugman did a great job of keeping our team together,” Lord said. “We have a bunch of competitors on this team. At that point, our team decided we got to do what it takes every single day in practice to get better.”
Team focus improved, Burgess said.
“We took a step back and did not stress so much about the season as a whole,” she said. “We paid attention to details and the little things.
“One thing we talked about over and over is how great of a team we have and how great our team chemistry is. It is definitely an awesome experience on and off the floor.”
It has all added up to Pittsburg State carrying a 26-5 record into the Central Regional quarterfinal game. Although Sioux Falls is the seventh seed, the Cougars, 27-5, are just as hot. They have won 14 of their last 15 games, including four straight to win the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament.
“They are awfully dangerous. They can really shoot the basketball,” Lord said.
Burgess is able do the same for Pittsburg State. She also distributes the ball, ranking third on the team in assists.
“Offensively, she has always been a scorer,” Lord said. “She has taken her game to a new level this year. She led the league in three-pointers made. We are really proud of the way she distributes the basketball. She will get doubled team, face guarded and she doesn’t let it get to her. She lets the game come to her and when she has an open look, she buries it.”
Burgess is looking forward to playing a team outside of the MIAA. If the Gorillas win, they will play the winner of the Missouri Western/Arkansas Tech game.
“It is great, a change of pace,” Burgess said. “It is exciting facing another team that doesn’t necessarily know your tendencies.
“We talked about the level of competition in our league is outstanding with Fort Hays, Missouri Western and Emporia and it goes deeper than that. We feel like our conference has prepared us for postseason and moving forward.”
Another region to watch in NCAA Division II women’s basketball tournament
Ashland and Lewis, two of the best and most consistent women’s basketball teams in Division II this season, are the top two seeds in the Midwest Regional.
Ashland, 30-1, has the advantage of playing at home at Kates Gymnasium in Ashland, Ohio. The Eagles will open against Ursuline, 25-3, at 5 p.m. ET Friday.
Lewis, 28-2, will play Grand Valley State, 22-9, at 2:30 p.m. Friday. Semifinals are on Saturday and the championship game is on Monday.
One of the big similarities between Ashland and Lewis is at head coach. Ashland is led by first-year coach Robyn Fralick, who was the associate head coach the previous four years and prior to that, was an assistant coach at Ashland.
Kristen Gillespie is also in her first season as head coach at Lewis. The two players to watch for Lewis are senior forward Mariyah Brawner-Henley, who is averaging 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds and freshman forward Jessica Kelliher, who is averaging 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds.
The dynamic duo for Ashland are a pair of sophomores. Center Laina Snyder is averaging 15.2 points and 9.1 rebounds and Andi Daugherty is averaging 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Men’s Atlantic Regional filled with conference rivalries
The Atlantic Regional for men will have a strong Mountain East flavor when it starts Saturday at McDonough Center on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit, the top seed. The No. 2 seed is West Liberty, which was national runner-up in 2014. And the No. 3 seed is Fairmount.
All three teams battled it out this season in the Mountain East Conference. West Liberty and Wheeling Jesuit finished tied for first in conference with 20-2 records and Fairmont was third at 19-3.
In the final coaches poll, West Liberty was fifth, Wheeling Jesuit was sixth and Fairmont was eighth.
Action for the Atlantic Regional starts noon ET Saturday with Fairmont, 25-4, will take on Virginia State, 23-5. West Liberty, 27-3, will face Concord, 21-9, at 2:30 p.m. Wheeling Jesuit, 28-3, will play Mercyhurst, 21-8, at 6 p.m. and the final quarterfinal game is No. 4 Kutztown, 21-6, facing No. 5 West Chester, 23-6, at 8:30 p.m.
The semifinals will be Sunday evening and the championship is Tuesday evening.