Darton leading scorer Michelle Mitchell leads the No. 11 nationally ranked Lady Cavs into the District finals today against Denmark Tech.
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WHO: Denmark Tech women (21-2) at Darton State College (29-3).
WHAT: NJCAA District play-in game, winner advances to NJCAA National Tournament.
WHEN: 6 p.m. today.
WHERE: Cavalier Arena at Darton State College.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
ALBANY — The Denmark Tech (S.C.) women’s basketball team is undefeated on the road this season, has won 19 of its last 20 games and brings a 21-2 record into today’s District J championship game against Darton.
But when the Lady Panthers step into Cavalier Arena tonight, Darton star Michelle Mitchell has a good idea what’s going to happen.
“They are going to be surprised,” Mitchell said. “Shell-shocked.”
With a trip to the NJCAA national tournament on the line, the Lady Bulldogs likely won’t know what hit ’em.
At least that’s what they are hoping for at Darton, where the Lady Cavs (29-3) are ranked 11th in the nation, winners of 10 straight and 19 of their last 20 and undefeated at home.
And they’ve done it all in one of the toughest regions in the country and with a schedule immeasurably more difficult than that of Denmark Tech, which was unbeaten against other South Carolina teams but picked up both losses when it crossed the border to play Atlanta Metro and Middle Georgia Tech.
The Lady Cavs were 4-0 during the regular season against Atlanta Metro and Middle Georgia Tech and won those games by an average of 31.75 points.
Darton coach Lea Henry, who is in her second year with the Lady Cavs, hesitated to talk much about Denmark Tech and instead said her team has concentrated on itself since winning the program’s first Region XVII title in more than a decade last weekend.
“We have really tried to stay focused on ourselves,” Henry said. “We haven’t been too wrapped up in Denmark Tech. We have been more focused on our team and working to get better, getting our defense a little tougher, our free throws a little better and our offense a little bit sharper.”
The Lady Cavs haven’t just been unbeatable at home — they’ve been down-right sensational, playing their previous seven games in Cavalier Arena and outscoring those opponents by an average of 27 points.
“It’s huge that we are able to stay at home,” freshman point guard Jasmine Wilson said. “We are undefeated on this court, so it feels good that we get to play one more home game before going to Kansas (for the national tournament).”
They haven’t lost at home since Dec. 9, 2011, and Henry expects a crowd unlike any the program has seen when they attempt to “white-out” the gym tonight.
“We have gone all year long where sometimes you walk around campus and people don’t even know you have a game that night, but all of a sudden everybody is aware of us,” Henry said. “You have to earn people’s interest, and I think that this team has done a great job all year long of continuing to play hard, and it’s a fun team to watch. If we can get this gym full (tonight) it can be a very exciting night for our program.”
Denmark Tech had tremendous success against the three other teams from Region 10 — Clinton Junior College, Spartanburg Methodist College and Tri-County Technical College — and is second in the nation with a 50.6 field goal percentage thanks to the 11 games it played against its weak region opponents. In a March 1 region semifinal game against Tri-County, the Lady Panthers won, 112-47, and shot 90.5 percent from the field, hitting 38 of 42 shots.
It’s a remarkable stat — but it’s one that likely won’t be duplicated against a Darton defense that is among the best in the nation.
“They like to run and take the ball to the hole, so we will have to defend well and stop what they like to do,” said Mitchell, whose team allows just 47 points per game and makes a living off easy transition buckets from turnovers. “Our defense can make them slow down from what they are trying to do.”
Mitchell, the Region XVII Player of the Year and one of the hottest prospects for NCAA Division I teams in the area, also gets it done on the offensive side, where she averages 16.4 points per game and can take her game to another level when necessary.
“I put my team on my back and take control and do what needs to be done in order for us to win,” said Mitchell, who scored 24 in the region championship game and seemingly willed her team to victory down the stretch.
A win would send the Lady Cavs to Salina, Kan., for their second NJCAA national tournament appearance in school history, but it’s a step that the Darton players aren’t thinking about just yet.
“This team is in the moment,” Henry said. “If we are practicing, they are in the moment of what we are looking at. If they are in study hall, they are in that moment. They are a real focused team, and even though they are young players, they are very a disciplined group. But at the same time, we have been talking about (the national tournament) all year.
“We want an opportunity to win a national championship.”