Texas-Tyler ready to travel

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Michelle Obach has come on this season to shoot 45.5 percent from 3-point range while leading the team in 3-pointers made, field-goal attempts, points, assists and steals.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com

By Rob Knox

There are a pair of sharpshooters deep in the heart of Texas capable of matching Golden State All-Stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shot-for-shot.

Michelle Obach and Makenzi May have been affectionately named the “Splash Sisters” for their 3-point shooting proficiency this season for the University of Texas-Tyler women’s basketball team. In addition to fueling the Patriots’ special season, they have combined to make 139 3-pointers.

Their sweet shots swish through the net with an elegance that’s been breathtaking for fans this season watching the unselfish duo feed off of one another while lighting up scoreboards. Yet, for all of their 3-point shooting prowess, they aren’t the only long-distance snipers on their team as four other players have made at least 20 3-pointers.

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“It’s funny to me,” Obach said when asked about being compared to Curry. “He’s a player I look up to and he’s crazy good so getting compared to him, I take it as a compliment. It’s a cool thing.”

Just like being in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.

In perhaps the most anticipated women’s sectional semifinal of the weekend, sixth-ranked UT-Tyler (29-1 overall) puts its 21-game winning streak on the line when it takes on second-ranked and undefeated George Fox (29-0) Friday night at the University of St. Thomas’ Schoenecker Arena in Saint Paul, Minn. The showdown between the heavyweights begins at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time. That contest will be followed by eighth-ranked St. Thomas (26-3) hosting Wartburg (21-7) at 9 p.m.

The two survivors will meet Saturday night at 8 p.m. with a trip to the Final Four on the line. With three top-10 teams in this sectional, this has a Final Four feel to it.

This will be the Patriots’ fourth game outside of the great state of Texas this season. They enjoyed the comforts of home as they hosted the ASC tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament last weekend where they defeated UC Santa Cruz and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. While they have enjoyed the tremendous fan support and playing in familiar surroundings, the Patriots are excited to be flying north.

“We are prepared to go anywhere in the Sweet 16,” Obach said. “We haven’t been on the road in a while, so I think going on the road will be a lot of fun. It’s definitely something to look forward to. We all have diverse personalities that mesh together really well. We also have a couple of players on the team who are taking their first flight.”

Making this season all the more remarkable is that Patriots have been led by first-year head coach Kendra Hassell, who has raised the bar of excellence and provided change that everybody has believed in. UT-Tyler has set a program record with 29 victories. They have soared behind Hassell’s free-flowing up-tempo system that has allowed players to flourish.

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UT Tyler enters the sectional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament second in the nation in total points (2,522), third in assists (544), fourth in scoring offense (84.1), eighth in free throws made (453) and scoring margin (19.4 ppg). The Patriots have scored at least 90 points nine times this season and topped triple figures on three occasions.

“We got to meet with (Hassell) during her interview,” May said. “The first impression was great. We loved her. We were all hoping she would be the one because we loved how she spoke to us. As a team, we have brought in to some of the things she said to us during those interviews.”

Hassell has a great background and has been preparing to be a head coach. She has coached at every NCAA level, most recently at Abilene Christian. Hassell is also an ASC Hall of Honor member as a player when she thrilled masses with her basketball gifts while devouring the competition at Hardin-Simmons as a two-time first-team D3hoops.com All-American. Last season, UT-Tyler won 27 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I have been fortunate to be able to coach in different parts of the country and with different programs,” Hassell said. “I have taken bits and pieces from each place I’ve worked and have applied it to how I want them to be here. Overall, I have great kids and they are extremely coachable. They have made great adjustments and it’s been fun for them.”

Consistently playing with a burning sense of urgency, Obach has established herself as one of the most dynamic scorers in program history having already racked up 855 career points in her two seasons with the Patriots. A junior from Tyler, Obach plays with supreme confidence whenever she has the ball in her hands.

With 27 double-digit performances, Obach has established the single-season scoring record with 538 points. Obach has scored at least 20 or more points nine times this season. She is averaging 17.9 points per game and has 111 assists and 66 steals.

Makenzi May, subject of a midseason feature in Around the Region, has continued to shoot well for the Patriots.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com 

“It’s a lot of fun and go out and play basketball and create shots for each other,” Obach said. “It feels good to play with players who are very talented. Plus it’s always fun to play with girls you care about. When (Hassell) came into the interview and we got to meet her, she talked a lot about shooting the three as well as having a drive-and-kick type of offense. I was excited.”

May (12.8 points per game), D’Onna Matthews (11.2) and Alex Kochner (10.6) are also double-digit scorers for the Patriots. May, who was an ASC All-Conference selection, has 82 assists and 30 steals. Matthews is the single-season program record holder with 45 blocked shots. She is averaging 17.5 points per game in the postseason to lead the Patriots.

Kochner collected her fifth double-double of the season after scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in last Saturday’s win over CMS. She is also averaging 10.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for the Patriots. Other key contributors for the Patriots this season include Re’Elle Miller, who scored a career-high 23 points in the first round of the tournament against UC Santa Cruz. A junior transfer, she is averaging 7.6 points per game and also has 3.6 rebounds, 51 assists and 35 steals on her resume.

Shuntay Raglin leads a deep bench with 8.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. A lockdown specialist, Alexus Bertrand is averaging 4.8 points per games and with 23 steals. Dia Evans has also been a vital player off the bench for the Patriots. A junior from Corpus Christi, Evans is averaging 2.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.

“This has been a good experience for all of us,” May said. “Some people may not realize how special this is and what we are doing as a team. We came into our season open-minded and to have the best season possible. We are meeting all of our goals that we set at the start of the year and going beyond them.”

The best moments for the Patriots have occurred away from the court. They are a close-knit group that enjoys each other and likes having fun. They also have bright futures like Obach, who aspires to be a lawyer one day. An education major who loves kids, May wants to teach kindergarten.

“They are fun to be around, energetic and talkative,” Hassell said. “They are great young women of character and integrity. They are also good in the classroom and that excites me. They are tremendous representatives of our program and school.”

If the best moments for this Patriots team are still ahead of them, they’ll experience them away from UT-Tyler as well, in cities such as St. Paul, Minn.; Columbus, Ohio; or Indianapolis.