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Courtesy: David Barfield
Eyes on the prize
Courtesy: GoBearkats.com
Release: 02/06/2012
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Two months after the Sam Houston football team earned the university its 24th Southland Conference championship and 25th NCAA Division I playoff berth, another Bearkat team is making a run at league leadership.

This time is the SHSU women's basketball team.

At the mid-point of the Southland Conference race, the Bearkat women are in first place in the Southland Conference West Division and are only two games behind the leaders in the race for the regular season title. The team has been dominating in victory, outscoring opponents by 15.5 points in its six Southland victories.

"We're playing with a lot of momentum and intensity right now, but we have to focus on our day to day agenda if we're going to earn the big prize at the end of the road," SHSU head coach Brenda Welch-Nichols said. "The team is working hard and playing unselfish basketball. They know that when we focus and work our offense, we score."

The team's success the past two seasons is a benchmark for the program. In Sam Houston's first 23 years in the Southland Conference, the women's basketball team had a winning record twice (1988 and 1996). Nichols, who was the leading scorer on the 1988 squad, directed the 2011 Kats to a 17-14 record, a third place overall league performance (the tying the 1996 squad for the highest Southland finish).

Last season ended in disappointment, however, as UTSA eliminated the Bearkats 69-61 in the first round of the Southland Conference tournament in Katy, dropping Sam Houston's won-loss mark in league tournament play to 2-12.

"After we lost to UTSA last year, (athletic director) Bobby Williams let us keep the girls down in Katy to see what staying in the tournament was all about," Nichols said. "It was a great experience for them."

Britni Martin, one of two All-Southland Conference forwards who are leading this year's squad to success, agreed with the head coach.

"One thing is for sure this year," the 6-0 junior from Conroe said. "We're not going to be satisfied with just getting to the tournament this year. We want to stay in Katy for a while."

Martin and Sequeena Thomas, another 6-0 junior forward for the Bearkats, are two big reasons why the Bearkats look to be a factor in the remaining half of the league race and in Southland post-season play.

Both are preseason All-Southland Conference picks and both rank among the league's statistics leaders.

Martin ranks fourth in the Southland and leads Sam Houston State with 16.1 points per game. She has become the 12th Bearkat woman to score more than 1,000 career points. Thomas stands 10th in scoring in the league with a 14.5 point average and leads the Southland in rebounding with 11.5 boards per game.

 "The great thing about both these young women is how team oriented they are," Nichols said. "If the shot isn't there either for Britni or Sequeena, they'll do whatever it takes to get another player open. Ask them to set a screen or make a pass, they'll do it."

Martin has scored in double figures in 16 games this season and 56 in her career, but also ranks fifth in the Southland this season in assists (3.7 per game) and stands 10th all-time in assists at Sam Houston.

Thomas has posted both figure points and rebounds in 11 of her 20 games this season including six double doubles in a row.

"Our mentality and our focus have been big for us this year," the Allentown, Penn., product nicknamed "Queen" by her teammates said. "We're determined to fight, if we're down, to come back and pull out a win."

What makes the 2012 Bearkats even more dangerous is that Martin and Thomas aren't the only weapons for the SHSU women. Angela Beadle, a 6-3 freshman center, adds 7.7 points and 7.5 rebounds to the Kats' inside game. Senior Khamra Echols, junior Chanice Smith and sophomore Jasmine Johnson bring experience to the backcourt. Senior Devin Wombles, sophomore Nyha Carter and freshmen Kaysean Clavelle and Jazmin Wiley all are available to add a spark off the bench.

"This group knows what they have to do - play tough defense, limit turnovers, put the ball in the right hands at the right time," Nichols said. "We've got four more weeks of basketball until its tournament time. We're excited about the opportunity."

Sam Houston State faces a key series of games during the next two weeks, playing UT-Arlington in Arlington Wednesday, hosting A&M-Corpus Christi Saturday afternoon at Johnson Coliseum then going on the road again to Central Arkansas.

The Bearkats will face the top contenders for the West Division title, Stephen F. Austin and Texas State, in their final two games of the season. The Southland Conference tournament in Katy begins March 6.

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