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Headed to the Heartland

In just two years, Darton State College women’s basketball coach Lea Henry, foreground, center, has transformed the program into a national powerhouse. Today, the Lady Cavs will make just their second appearance in program history at the NCAA National Championships in Kansas, where the Lady Cavs enter as the No. 8 seed and will open up the tournament against No. 9 Blinn (Texas) College. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

In just two years, Darton State College women’s basketball coach Lea Henry, foreground, center, has transformed the program into a national powerhouse. Today, the Lady Cavs will make just their second appearance in program history at the NCAA National Championships in Kansas, where the Lady Cavs enter as the No. 8 seed and will open up the tournament against No. 9 Blinn (Texas) College. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

SALINA, Kan. — Darton’s Kadayasha Jones paused and tried to think of something, anything that would make somebody want to take a vacation to Kansas.

All the freshman guard could do was shrug.

“When I think of Kansas, all I can think about is winning a championship,” Jones said. “I think of going there, doing what we do and winning it all.”

That’s what is on the minds of the No. 8 seed Lady Cavs, who are one of the final 16 NJCAA teams left in the nation and open the national tournament today in Salina, Kan., against No. 9 seed Blinn College from Texas.

There won’t be any trips to amusement parks or museums. No nights out on the town. Not even a Wizard of Oz movie night.

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WHO: No. 8 seed Darton State College women’s basketball tean (30-3) vs. No. 9 seed Blinn (Texas) College (31-3).

WHAT: NJCAA National Championship tournament.

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Salina, Kan.

ON THE WEB: Watch the game live on the NJCAA’s webcast via a link at cavs.darton.edu.

Just a single goal of bringing home the program’s first national title.

“We aren’t going there for a vacation,” freshman point guard Jasmine Wilson said. “We are going there to get down to business. We just have to get there and do what we need to do.”

It’s been a magical season so far for the Lady Cavs, who enter the tournament on an 11-game winning streak and winners of 20 of their last 21 games. With a 30-3 overall record, they are one of only four teams in the nation with at least 30 wins and earned one of eight first-round byes after crushing Denmark State in the March 8 district play-in game.

Even though the Lady Cavs have only been to Salina once before in 2000, it won’t be second-year coach and Damascus native Lea Henry’s first time at a national tournament. Henry, the all-time winningest coach at Georgia State, took the Lady Panthers to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 2001-03 during her 16-year stint at the school.

She’s spent the last week telling her Lady Cavs what to expect.

“I have tried to let them understand that every team out there is going to be similar to us,” said Henry, who went to Salina countless times to recruit during her years as a Division I coach. “They are going to play hard and be good defensive teams. You don’t get to that point unless you are a good team. I am trying to get them prepared for that type of competitive environment and a tough game.”

The Lady Cavs can count the number of tough games they have had this season on one hand.

Twenty-six of their 30 wins have been by at least 10 points, and only one — a 52-50 victory against South Georgia Tech in overtime Dec. 5 — was decided by fewer than five points.

The biggest reason the Lady Cavs have been nearly unstoppable this season?

Michelle Mitchell.

And the sophomore guard from Eastman, who was named the Region XVII Player of the Year and will have her pick of top Division I programs to play at next season, will no doubt be the difference maker in Salina.

“Every great team has a go-to player, and she has definitely been our go-to player,” Henry said. “But you don’t get to a national championship opportunity without surrounding (role) players, and I think that has been what has been the difference this year. We have a team that has good talent, good size, good players and people who understand their roles. But also, Michelle has to do her thing for us to have a chance to win.”

Mitchell averages 16.6 points a game, but she also leads the team in rebounding (7.3) and steals (2.2).

She led the Lady Cavs with 20-plus points in both the Region XVII championship game and the District J title game — and left the court in tears after leading the Lady Cavs to their first region championship in more than a decade.

There haven’t been any tears since.

“The past week of practice there has been a lot more focus than in the regular season,” Mitchell said. “We are coming in here and working with the (Darton men’s club basketball team), who make us work harder and make us stay focused.”

But when she steps on the court in the 7,500-seat Bicentennial Center for today’s opener, she understands a national championship could rest on her shoulders.

“I feel like I need to continue to play well, carry my team and do what I do best, which is scoring,” Mitchell said. “I just want to stay humble when I play though. I don’t want to over-think anything. I just want to go out there and play.”

And her teammates know how important it is to get her going.

“My role is to set the tempo and give Michelle the ball in the open floor, because she is our go-to person,” said Wilson, who leads the team with 6.6 assists per game. “Michelle is a good athlete, and as long as everybody else does their part, she is going to do her part. So we just have to ride with her and help out.”

It will take four wins to bring home a national championship — a goal that the Lady Cavs program has been striving for since Henry accepted the job in May of 2011.

In the days leading up to the national tourney, Henry has had opportunities to look back on what has been one the best rides in her decades-long coaching career.

“I am so proud of everything that our team has accomplished, because they have worked so hard for it and have really done all the right things,” said Henry, who is 51-11 in her two seasons at Darton. “I think you sit back and reflect on it and really feel good about the season. Before you go to sleep at night or when you are on a walk by yourself or driving into work, you think about it. It’s important to appreciate what has happened this season and to have moments where you really enjoy it.”

If the Lady Cavs win today, they will likely meet up in the quarterfinals with No. 1 seed and defending national champ Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, which is 32-1 overall and has been the top-ranked team in the nation for the past month.

Trinity Valley will also have to win its opening game today, and it’s a looming matchup that the Lady Cavs are well aware of.

“If we win (today) we know nine times out of 10 we will meet up with (Trinity Valley),” Wilson said. “But there is going to be competition out there, so we just have to see when we get there. I think we can play with everybody.”

Henry said the potential showdown with Trinity, which would be 1 p.m. on Thursday and have a spot in the Final Four on the line, might as well happen sooner than later.

“I always try to find a way to look at things on the bright side,” Henry said. “The way I look at this is that if you have to play the No. 1 team, then you might as well go ahead and play them when you are rested and get it out of the way.”

Trinity Valley finished last season undefeated, has played in the national championship game the last two years and has made the national tourney five straight seasons — and like many of the teams in Salina, Trinity Valley is familiar to playing on a national stage.

Darton is hoping its first time under the spotlight in more than a decade is unforgettable.

“I feel like they are going to learn that we are a good team and that we take it at people,” Jones said. “We are going to let them know that we are just as good as every other team at the national tournament.

“That’s why we’re going to Kansas. To win it all.”