VALDOSTA -- For the last few holiday seasons, Valdosta State has experienced how the other half lives. The Gulf South Conference West Division, that is.
All in preparation for the day the Lady Blazers would make the Gulf South basketball tournament.
That day has come. VSU is in the Gulf South tournament, going against a team it faced in this year's holiday trip.
VSU (15-11) plays sixth-ranked Arkansas Tech (24-3) in the third first-round game today at the BancorpSouth Center in Tupelo, Miss. (radio: WVGA-FM 105.9; live internet stats at http://www.gulfsouthconference.org/wbasketball/wtourbrac.htm).
Thursday's winners advance to Saturday's semifinal round, with the championship game Sunday.
The two teams played last Thanksgiving weekend, with Arkansas Tech winning, 56-48. The game was in Russellville, Ark., and it more than a trip back to VSU head coach Kiley Hill's alma mater and a game against his former boss, Tech coach Joe Foley.
"He knows we're going to play a good basketball game, and that we're going to be prepared to play them," Hill said, adding that the two coaches stay in touch each week to talk basketball. "A lot of teams on this side are not prepared to play.
"Our kids know we can play with them. We struggled at times, but that was early in the season. We've got our chemistry going now, and I think we're a sleeper."
Arkansas Tech is led by returning all-conference player Chanovia Rhodes, a 6-foot-2 senior post player. She averages 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds.
"They are one of the most fundamentally sound and well-coached teams in the nation," Hill said. "It's very rare they beat themselves."
Valdosta State has three players in double figures, with junior guard Danielle Hernandez (12.3) leading the way. But she twisted an ankle in Wednesday's practice and may be slowed today. Freshman forward Candice Ferrell (11.3) had her breakout game against Tech (25 points, 10 rebounds). Sophomore center Courtney Parker adds 10.1 points and 8.8 rebounds.
"I think we're playing with much more confidence," Hill said. "We've finally begun to understand our roles and what it takes.
"The biggest thing is we've made free throws and made shots. Our defense has been there all year."
The East Division will be looking to make a dent in the West's recent tournament domination. Only one East team has advanced to the semifinals in each of the last two years, and no East team has made the finals since West Florida lost to Arkansas Tech in 1998.
The last East team to win the conference? West Georgia in 1994, before Jane Williamson left there for Valdosta State.
"The teaching is so much better in Arkansas high school basketball and the surrounding states," Hill said. "Winning has become a tradition for them. We're trying to get there."
In addition, Arkansas Tech wants to hold on to its No. 1 regional ranking and host next weekend's South Region tournament. A Tech loss today would probably send the tournament to second-ranked Fort Valley State, which won the SIAC tournament Sunday.
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