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— By JOEL GRAY

Rocket Launcher LIVE

On Friday night, the Southern Arkansas University Tech Rockets will host their most important basketball games of the 2018-19 season when the North Arkansas College Pioneers come to Camden for the first-ever Region 2 Conference contest between the two schools.

The Lady Pioneers finished last season as the No. 8 team in the nation. This year they have a record of 17-4 and are currently the No. 6 team in the NJCAA Division-II Top Twenty Poll. The Lady Rockets are competing in only their first season on the court, but–amazingly–stand at 9-4. The Lady Rockets also feature the nation’s top 3-point-percentage player in Brandashia Hargraves (58.3 percent), who is accurate from beyond the arc. Both squads are 1-0 in Region 2 play, meaning the winner will stand all alone at the top of the conference standings. NorthArk’s women have almost twice the number of victories that Tech’s ladies have accumulated. However, between these two Division-II schools, the Lady Pioneers have played a schedule laden with Junior Varsity opponents. Only 8 of their 21 games played were against Division-I teams and they are 6-2 in those games.

Meanwhile, SAU Tech has faced–exclusively–Division-I competition, (except for their lone conference game against D-II National Park College), and the Rockets are 8-4 in those games.

There is a catch.

North Arkansas College has already clinched the Region 2 Conference title with ASU-MidSouth’s Lady Greyhounds withdrawing, due to injuries, for the remainder of the season. The Rockets and the NPC Nighthawks—the only other conference members–are each serving mandatory probationary periods as first-year start-up programs and are ineligible to claim a conference championship or to play in the post-season.

So the Lady Pioneers are Region 2 “Champions-by-Default,” but naturally would like to justify themselves on the court. The Lady Rockets, on the other hand, have a chance to prove themselves to be just as good as this consistent contender for the national championship, while also foreshadowing what is surely to be a highly-competitive future.

As for the Rocket and Pioneer men’s teams, neither are currently nationally-ranked, but SAU Tech sits atop the Region 2 standings as the only team that is undefeated in conference play, while also sporting several players at the top of the Region 2 stats leaderboard.

The Pioneers can create a three-way tie for first place by defeating the Rockets. That could then set the stage for them to overcome an earlier defeat by the MidSouth Greyhounds which has currently put them in the third position of the standings.

Again, SAU Tech and National Park College are ineligible, so the actual men’s champion will be either the Pioneers or the Greyhounds.

Playing for the future—and bragging rights—is a powerful motivation for a start-up program like the Rockets, who got off to a 4-0 start against brutal competition, and have won 7 of their last 8 games since the Christmas break.

Tip-off for the games is set for 5:00 pm on Friday, Feb. 1, at Shaddock Fieldhouse located at 655 Fairview Road in Camden. General Admission is $5 and children aged 12 and under get in free along with SAU Tech students and staff.

These are the biggest games of the season so far. The Rockets are ready! Are you?

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