The Valdosta State basketball teams will participate in the Gulf South Conference tournament this weekend in Birmingham, Ala.
Both teams will begin the tournament Friday in the quarterfinal round. The fourth-seeded Lady Blazers (16-10, 9-9 in GSC) will face fifth-seeded Alabama-Huntsville (12-16, 9-9) at 1 p.m. Eastern.
A No. 4 seed, the Blazers (17-9, 9-9 in GSC) will face No. 5 seed Delta State (11-15, 7-11) at 6 p.m. Eastern.
The tournament begins Thursday and the championship games will be played Sunday. The tournament will be held at the Pete Hanna Center on the Samford University campus.
Sunday’s championship games will be aired live on ESPN3.com.
Here is a breakdown and tournament outlook for each team.
Entering the tournament: The Lady Blazers finished the regular season winners of six of their last eight, which included a season-long four-game win streak. On the final weekend of the regular season, the VSU women beat Christian Brothers 80-68, before losing to Delta State 77-63.
First round matchup: The Lady Blazers will face Alabama-Huntsville Friday. The Lady Blazers won both meetings against the Lady Chargers this season, but by a combined five points. VSU won 54-51 at home and 67-65 on the road. In both games, the Lady Blazers hit game-winning field goals inside the final seconds. Another close game is likely in the making Friday.
Tourney outlook: If victorious Friday, the Lady Blazers will face either eighth-seeded West Florida or top-seed Delta State. The Lady Blazers lost both regular season meetings to Delta State, including the one last Saturday in Cleveland, Miss.
What’s on the line: Ranked seventh in the latest Division II South Region rankings last week — the new rankings are released today — the Lady Blazers are not yet guaranteed a spot in the postseason. A win or two in the conference tournament could help solidify the Lady Blazers’ spot in the South Region tournament.
Player to watch: Brittney Nelson. Nelson is the only senior on the Valdosta State roster and she will relied on heavily by head coach Kiley Hill. Nelson averaged a team-high 14.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season. From three-point range, Nelson leads the conference with a .400 percentage.
UAH Player to watch: Jasmine Hammon. The UAH offense goes through Hammon. The senior is averaging a conference best 18.1 points per game this season.
Entering the tournament: The Blazers enter the tournament riding a two-game losing streak, losses that might prove to be detrimental to their postseason life. Before the two-game losing skid, the Blazers were winners of four straight games.
First round matchup: For the second time in less than a week, the Blazers will face rival Delta State. Last Saturday, the Blazers were blown out by the Statesmen, 77-61, in Cleveland, Miss. The Blazers won the regular season meeting in Valdosta, 60-54. Last weekend’s loss to Delta State ended an eight-game winning streak over the Statesmen.
Tourney outlook: A first round victory over the Statesmen, and the Blazers will face either West Georgia, the eight seed, or Alabama-Huntsville, the four-time reigning regular season champion. The Blazers lost both meetings to the Chargers this season, coming by a combined nine points.
What’s on the line: If the Blazers want to go dancing past the conference tournament they’ll need to win the conference to earn the automatic bid. That will take three victories in three days. That scenario isn’t out of the question, though. Prior to their two-game losing streak this past weekend, the Blazers said they felt like they were going to be a dangerous team come tournament time. With the way the team has been playing lately, it isn’t out of the question that the Blazers could get hot and reel off three victories to win the championship. It will be tough, but it isn’t impossible.
Player to watch: Josh Sparks. The only returner from last year’s team that finished with an 11-16 record, Sparks remembers last year’s 31-point loss to Christian Brothers in the conference tournament. With his three-year Blazer career ending at the end of the season, Sparks knows that his career could end without a postseason berth if he and his teammates don’t win this weekend.
Expect Sparks, who is second in the NCAA in blocks per game, to elevate his game and carry the Blazers as far as they will go. Contributions from fellow senior James Anacreon couldn’t hurt the Blazers, either.
DSU Player to watch: Terry Leake. The leading scorer for the Statesmen, Leake is third in the conference in scoring at 17.7 points per game. In the Statesmen’s 77-61 win over VSU on Saturday, Leake scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Leake seems to be a gem on a team that has rather underachieved this season.
— Follow me on Twitter at @Ed_Hooper.