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No. 3 Raiders ready for national stage

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — While rumbling through the Cascade Conference's regular season and tournament nearly unscathed, it became apparent that the third-ranked Southern Oregon women's basketball team needed a new challenge. And if history is any indication, there will be no shortage of challenges at the NAIA Division II National Tournament.

Finally, the Raiders (29-1) will get a shot to prove themselves — and the CCC — on the national stage when they begin play at the 32-team championships with a first-round matchup against the unranked Clarke Crusaders (19-12) of Dubuque, Iowa, at 11:45 a.m. Pacific Time today.

The tournament is split into four brackets and the Raiders have the top seed in theirs, which has been dubbed the Duer Bracket. If they advance, they'll play at 3:15 p.m. on Friday against either fourth-seeded Briar Cliff (Iowa) (22-9) or fifth-seeded Saint Ambrose (Iowa) (22-9).

Oregon Tech, which opens against eighth-ranked Jamestown (N.D.), is the CCC's only other representative. Since the DII tournament started in 1992, three CCC teams have won it: Western Oregon in 1995 and '96 and Northwest Nazarene in '97, and both have since departed for the NCAA Div. II level. SOU advanced to the semifinals in '97 and College of Idaho made the championship game in 2001, but Eastern Oregon is the only other team from the conference since then to have even made the quarterfinals, doing so in 2012 and '13. Now, as the only one-loss team in the tourney and the only team from the CCC to ever come into the tourney with a single loss, the Raiders are equipped to make another dent.

How They Got Here: SOU earned one of the CCC's two automatic bids, winning its first regular-season title since 2008 by a three-game margin and winning its first conference tournament since that same season by dominating three games by an average of 29.7 points. The Raiders got off to a program-best start of 16-0 before their only loss — 75-69 at Eastern Oregon on Jan. 16 — and have since ran off 13 more consecutive wins. Along the way they shattered the CCC's scoring record and ranked second in the nation at 88.2 points per game, they led the nation in scoring margin (30.3 points), ranked second in steals per game (15), second in turnover margin (plus-8), fifth in field-goal percentage defense (34.5) and fifth in rebounds (45.5) to complete a picture of dominance.

Clarke took one of the Association of Independent Institutions' three automatic bids by winning the tournament consolation game, 95-73 over Indiana Northwest. A five-game skid starting in mid-December left the Crusaders with a 6-9 record before they rallied to win nine of their next 10. However, they have a mark of 0-9 against teams in the current top-25 poll and lost those games by an average of 19 points.

Tournament History: The Raiders made their eighth appearance last year and their first since 2009. With a No. 3 seed and the No. 10 overall ranking, they defeated Robert Morris (Ill.) in the first round, 96-61, behind Carly Meister's 25 points and nine rebounds. The win stopped a skid of four straight first-round losses and was their first at the tournament since 1999. They were eliminated in the second round by unranked Tabor (Kan.), 72-65, which coaxed them into 37-percent shooting and forced 20 turnovers. The Raiders are 6-8 overall at the tournament and own their highest seed since they were No. 2 overall in 1998 and No. 1 overall in '99. In both of those seasons, though, they were stopped in the second round.

The Crusaders advanced to their first national tournament last year, going 20-13 for their first record above the .500 mark since 2002. They lost in the first round to Davenport (Mich.), 78-48.

About the Bracket: SOU and Clarke aside, the Duer Bracket features a handful of tournament regulars and heavy-hitters:

— Saint Francis (Ill.), the No. 2 seed and ranked No. 6 overall, is making its first appearance.

— Tabor (Kan.), the No. 3 seed and ranked 11th overall, knocked the Raiders out in the second round last year as an unranked squad.

— Briar Cliff, the No. 4 seed and ranked No. 15, is in the tournament for the sixth time in seven years, is 26-12 all-time and appeared in last year's semifinals.

— Saint Ambrose, the No. 5 seed and No. 19 overall, is making its 11th tournament appearance.

— Hastings (Neb.), the No. 6 seed and No. 22 overall, was another semifinalist last year, is making its 16th appearance in the tournament and has won three titles — the last in 2006.

— Asbury (Ky.), the No. 7 seed, made its first appearance last year and lost in the first round.

Quick Hits:

— The biggest difference between this year and last, at least statistically, is SOU's turnover margin: This year the Raiders are forcing 23 and committing 15 turnovers per game, and last year they forced 16 and committed 18 — a swing of 10 added possessions per game.

— Senior point guard Ashley Claussen was a no-brainer pick for CCC player of the year as she led the conference in scoring (17.5 points) with 48-percent shooting from the field, 44 percent from 3-point range and 88 percent from the line. She's scored 20-plus 15 times after doing so three times over her first three years and was also fourth in the CCC in assists (3.7) and first in steals (3.0). Her 88 makes from 3-point range this season are already an SOU record.

— Carly Meister, now a three-time CCC all-star, comes into the tournament with 1,440 points, 799 rebounds and 22 double-doubles for her career. In SOU's two biggest wins of the season — the regular-season rematch with Eastern Oregon and the tourney title game against Oregon Tech — she combined to shoot 21-of-24 with 46 points and 18 rebounds.

— Junior Autumn Durand, an All-CCC forward, was among the CCC leaders in six major statistical categories: points per game (11.5, 14th), rebounds (7.9, 4th), steals (1.8, 11th), blocks (1.0, 7th), field-goal percentage (52.7, 7th) and free-throw percentage (80.3, 7th).

— The Raiders have only allowed six opponents to shoot 40 percent or better, and they've shot over 40 percent from the field in 25 of 30 games.

— The Raider bench scored 108 points in three conference tournament games and outscored the starters in the first two.