New foe, new season as Lady Eagles enter NCCAA regional

Junior forward Roz Hamilton has come on strong down the stretch this season for OC, which will open NCCAA Central Region tournament play on Thursday.
Junior forward Roz Hamilton has come on strong down the stretch this season for OC, which will open NCCAA Central Region tournament play on Thursday.

OKLAHOMA CITY (March 6, 2013) – It’s a different postseason world for Oklahoma Christian in the National Christian College Athletic Association, but it’s also one the Lady Eagles will embrace.

After missing the NAIA and Sooner Athletic Conference postseason in 2012, and not being eligible for NCAA Division II and Heartland Conference postseason this year, OC coach Stephanie Findley and the Lady Eagles are grateful for the opportunity to play for something.

OC (16-11) will begin play in the NCCAA Central Region tournament on Thursday at 3 p.m. against Ecclesia (Ark.). The tournament is being played at Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Bartlesville. The regional champion will advance to the eight-team NCCAA national tournament, set for next Wednesday through Saturday at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind.

It’s already been a successful season for the Lady Eagles, who rebounded from a disappointing 2011-12 campaign and made a seamless transition into the Heartland Conference and Division II competition. Had games involving OC and McMurry (Texas) been counted in the conference standings, OC would have finished third in the nine-team league with a 10-6 mark.

Six teams will play in the NCCAA regional, with OC seeded third – behind Southern Nazarene and McMurry. OC split with SNU this season and swept McMurry, winning by double digits each time. SNU (17-9) and McMurry (12-14) will receive first-round byes.

The other first-round game Thursday will pit Southwestern Christian (13-18) against Central Baptist (Ark.) (13-14).

OC and its first-round opponent, Ecclesia, have only one common opponent this season – OC lost 72-71 to Mid-America Christian while the Royals fell 93-41. Ecclesia (5-24) has played two other SAC teams this season, losing by 46 and 35 points to John Brown (Ark.) and by 28 and 41 points to Rogers State.

The Lady Eagles never before have played Ecclesia. The Royals rank 14th in NCCAA Division I in blocked shots per game (3.2) and 11th in steals per game (11.5), one spot behind OC in the latter category. Ecclesia’s Caitlin Williams is 23rd in 3-point percentage at 37.0 percent, while Tabitha Nelson and Sibyl Thomas rank in the top 25 in blocked shots and Williams and Thomas rank in the top 25 in steals.

“I don’t know anything about them,” Findley said.

OC has the NCCAA Central Region player of the year in senior center Katy O’Steen (15.8 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) and junior forward Roz Hamilton has come on strong the last few weeks, lifting her averages to 12.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Lady Eagles rank in the NCCAA top 10 in scoring, free-throw percentage, rebounding and steals.

The Lady Eagles have won seven of their last nine games and are coming off one of their best performances of the season, a 77-71 overtime win on Saturday over Heartland champion Texas-Permian Basin, which ended UTPB’s 13-game winning streak. Freshman guard Sydney Hill earned Heartland and NCCAA player of the week honors after scoring 29 points in that game.

It may seem like a given that OC will beat Ecclesia, but Findley said her team must take each opponent seriously.

“You want them to feel confident, but not cocky and overconfident,” Findley said. “Most kids understand that if you don’t come out and give your best effort, anybody can knock you off. We’re just trying to prepare to keep playing as well as we did the last two games and keep it on a roll.”

A win over Ecclesia would send the Lady Eagles into a 2 p.m. Friday semifinal, likely against Heartland rival McMurry. It’s highly likely that if OC advances to the 1 p.m. Saturday title game, longtime nemesis Southern Nazarene will be there waiting. But Findley insists there will be no looking ahead for the Lady Eagles – O’Steen will make sure of that.

“These girls are pretty focused,” Findley said. “Katy O’Steen has them pretty focused, as a senior. They have a goal in mind. Of course, these other teams do, too. But this past week, their preparation and their state of mind has been very positive. I hope that we can continue to carry that into these games, no matter who it is we’re playing.”