By Angel Verdejo
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – Making the American Southwest Conference tournament isn't new to the Mary Hardin-Baylor women's basketball team.
The Crusaders have advanced to postseason play in each of the last four seasons.
But what has eluded UMHB is the conference title, something the Crusaders hope to achieve this season behind a core that returns not just all five starters and eight of the its top 10 scorers, but is now a year older in a competitive ASC West Division.
"It's been a struggle because we are good enough but everybody else is just a little better," junior Landie Thompson said. "That's frustrating, but this year I think we're just as good.
The West Division champion has won the conference tournament in all but one season since the ASC split into divisions in 1999. The only exception came last season when McMurry University won the division but Howard Payne claimed its third-straight conference title.
And it's not just the experience that has the Crusaders excited. Head coach Kim Kirkpatrick-Thornton said this year's incoming recruiting class might be the best in her five years at UMHB.
"This is one of our strongest teams I feel like," she said. "We're hoping that's going to get us over the hump."
The Crusaders just missed the ASC tournament the year before Kirkpatrick-Thornton arrived, finishing fifth behind the four tournament participants. They were the fourth-place finisher in 2006, but upset two higher-seeded teams before falling to McMurry in the conference championship.
UMHB lost in the opening round in 2007 but reached the ASC semifinals the last two seasons.
"Getting over that hump is half the battle," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. "We've done well getting into the conference tournament but we're not happy with coming in fourth. We want to win our division and we want to win our conference tournament and feel like we have the players to do it."
No current players were on the 2005-06 team that reached the conference final, but Kallie White and Jessica Kelly both played in the Crusaders' playoff lost to East Texas Baptist the next season. That number jumped from two to seven in 2008.
"We've always been kind of young," Thompson said. "The age difference meant a lot, especially in close games. They just had the confidence that we didn't have. They had experience and just knowing what to do, where we were just young and didn't."
Youth and chemistry are no longer problems as most of this Crusader team spent 27 games together last season, including two conference-tournament games.
All-conference picks Thompson (13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds a game) and Kellie Thomas (7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) lead a frontcourt that also has experience in White and junior Stacie Stephens, who started six games before suffering a season-ending injury. Junior transfer Lindsay Eaton is a two-time all-conference pick.
Guard Jenny Black (7.6 ppg) was also an all-ASC selection, while Mallory McAdams was the UMHB's leader in assists (81) and steals (51) last year. Junior Caitlin Barganier and Kelly have a combined 28 starts in the backcourt.
"There's just something about getting in the experience and I don't care if you come from a (Class) 5A high school," Kirkpatrick-Thornton said. "When you've been together as long and have as much experience as they have, they become like family."
Contact Angel Verdejo at email@example.com or (254) 501-7564.