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Raider women take on underdog role in opener

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — For the fifth time in six seasons, the Southern Oregon University women’s basketball team is back at the Tyson Events Center for the NAIA Division II Championships.

But for the first time since that run began, the Raiders will have to embrace an underdog role off the bat.

It suited them well in the Cascade Conference Tournament, where they went on the road to upset Eastern Oregon in the semifinal round and lock up an automatic bid in the 32-team national field.

The next challenge in front of them is sizable in a couple respects: St. Francis (Ill.) is ranked No. 8 in the Top 25 coaches’ poll, has won 20 of its last 22 games and features a 6-foot post, Kaylin Aylward, who is the country’s fifth-leading scorer.

“St. Francis has been one of the dominant teams in the NAIA recently and will be a big challenge for us,” SOU head coach Alex Carlson said. “(Aylward) really makes them go but they have good size across their lineup and we’ll really have to compete to rebound with this team.”

The Raiders (20-10) are the No. 7 seed and the Fighting Saints (28-5) the No. 2 seed in the Liston quadrant of the bracket. They’re scheduled to tip off today at 7:15 p.m. Pacific, making theirs the final game of Day 1 at the tournament.

Aylward has compiled more than 2,100 points in her four-year career and is enjoying her best season yet, putting up 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game to garner Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference MVP accolades.

She’s listed as a center but has attempted a team-high 149 3-pointers and hit at a 38-percent clip outside. No other USF player averages more than eight points, though junior forward Adriana Acosta was an All-CCAC second team selection at 7.5 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds off the bench.

Their collective offensive numbers don’t jump off the page, but their average points allowed of 54.2 points per game ranks fourth in the country. With a few more rotation players standing at 5-11 or taller, their size also translated into the third-best defensive rebounding average (32.2) nationally.

The Saints went 20-2 in the CCAC, finishing second behind sixth-ranked Saint Xavier (Ill.), but ended SXU’s 18-game winning streak by defeating the Cougars 66-63 in the CCAC Tournament final. They also defeated No. 11 Saint Francis (Ind.) during the preseason but lost by 61 to No. 1 Concordia (Neb.) and by 31 to No. 2 Marian (Ind.). The Saints qualified for the tournament for the first time in 2016 and have been included every year since, reaching the semifinals in ‘17, the quarterfinals in ‘18 and the Round of 16 last season.

The SOU-USF winner will play in Friday’s Round of 16 at 11:45 a.m. PDT — meeting the winner of a first-round game between 10th-ranked Morningside (Iowa) (23-9), the Liston’s No. 3 seed, and 23rd-ranked West Virginia Tech (24-7), the No. 6 seed.

The Raiders are making their 12th appearance, all since 1997, and are 6-5 in first-round action.

They’d dropped four consecutive first-round contests until reaching the second round in 2015, and Carlson came on board the next season. In his debut campaign, he guided the Raiders to the semifinals for the second time in program history — becoming the first CCC team to get there since 2001 — and to the national title game for the first time. SOU lost to Marian but returned in 2017, losing a first-round game to Northwestern (Iowa), and in ‘18, topping Antelope Valley (Calif.) before falling against Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.) in the Round of 16.

The Raiders have won 10 consecutive games in which they’ve forced 20 or more turnovers. On the NAIA DII leaderboard, they’re No. 20 in steals per game (12).

In their last four wins, the Raiders have averaged 13.3 3-point makes on 44-percent accuracy. In their last four losses, they’ve averaged 8.3 makes on 32-percent accuracy.

Redshirt sophomore Dominique Harding, SOU’s All-CCC guard, averaged 15 points and 53-percent shooting and six rebounds in the CCC Tournament. She’s scored 15 or more on 13 occasions and made at least half of her field-goal attempts in nine of those.

Her 47-percent overall mark from the field is the highest for a Raider guard averaging double figures in four years.

Sophomore guard Kalei Iwami has had the hot hand recently off the bench, hitting at least three 3-pointers in five consecutive games and going a combined 18-of-35 from downtown over her last six. She’s averaged 12 points during that span; she averaged 6.3 before it.

The Raiders were without their other All-CCC selection, Syd’Nee Fryer, in their CCC Tournament championship loss at Northwest Christian. Among CCC players, the junior forward ranked second in rebounds (8.4) and third in steals (2.2), and she’s posted 10.5 points per game in 52 starts since the beginning of last season.

Fryer is expected to be in the lineup against St. Francis.

With their two CCC Tournament victories, the Raiders clinched their seventh 20-win season in eight years.

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