WINCHESTER — It’s time for the games that really count.

The Umpqua Community College women’s basketball team begins its quest on Saturday to win the Southern Region title for the fifth time in six seasons.

The No. 2-ranked Riverhawks (11-2) open league in Gresham against No. 8 Mt. Hood (10-4, 1-0 South). Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.

The Saints edged Southwestern Oregon 70-69 Wednesday night at home in their Southern Region opener.

It was a successful showing in nonleague play for Umpqua, which returned just one sophomore in guard Taylor Stricklin. The Riverhawks entered the week ranked third in the Northwest Athletic Conference in scoring with 84.5 points a game.

Umpqua won its first eight games, highlighted by an 83-72 overtime win over No. 6 North Idaho. The Riverhawks then dropped a pair of contests over a 10-day span, losing 77-73 to Bellevue and 96-92 to Whatcom.

“We feel really good about it,” UCC coach Dave Stricklin said. “Back in late September, if you would have told me we’d be 11-2 at this point with only one sophomore we would’ve taken it right away. The two losses we had were both winnable games, so we could easily be 13-0. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made and the direction we’re headed.”

Of course, there’s plenty to work on, especially at the defensive end.

The Riverhawks are 23rd in the NWAC in scoring defense (66.7). Taking care of the basketball has been a problem — they rank 28th in turnovers per game (18.2).

“Part is our size,” Dave Stricklin replied, when asked about the defense. “We have to spend more time collapsing on the post this year, and we’re giving up more 3s. We need to have a little better defensive intensity. The game we lost against Whatcom we flat out didn’t guard anybody.”

“Our communication on defense is a big issue right now,” Taylor Stricklin said. “Sometimes we’re not talking as much.”

But the bright spots have well outnumbered the negative ones.

Taylor Stricklin, a Roseburg and Sutherlin High product and daughter of the coach, leads the NWAC in scoring (24.9) and 3-point field goals (57) and is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. She’s also averaging 4.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.2 steals.

Redshirt freshman Darian Mitchell, out of Douglas High of Winston, is the NWAC leader in rebounding (12.2) and the second-leading scorer (16.2) for the Riverhawks.

Those two are joined in the starting lineup by freshmen Grace Campbell (11.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists), Cielo Gonzalez (11.5 points, 3.9 assists) and Sienna Riggle (7.1 points, 8.3 rebounds).

The most productive reserve is freshman Lexi Woodard (6.4 points, 5 rebounds).

“I think we’ve grown a lot,” Taylor Stricklin said. “With so many freshmen and lack of experience coming in, I was wondering but they’ve done a great job so far. At this point, they’re not freshmen anymore ... they’ve played in 13 games and have the experience.

“The losses also proved we’re not amazing. They’re good reminders we have to come prepared for practice and games. But we’ve learned how to play together. The chemistry has grown, both on and off the court. It’s been fun.”

With Mitchell leading the way, the Riverhawks are at the top of the NWAC in rebounding margin (16.7).

“We’ve been putting in a lot of work at practice and getting up a lot of shots, pushing each other more,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to be better than we were in the preseason. Our rebounding (is a strength). When we do rebound not many teams have a chance.”

Umpqua will face a Mt. Hood team that will have a size advantage. The two teams met at the Clackamas Thanksgiving Invitational Nov. 23 in Oregon City, with the Riverhawks winning 82-70.

“They’ll be a team to take seriously,” Mitchell said.

“They’re good,” Taylor Stricklin added. “We have to come ready to play, we won’t be able to just show up.”

NOTES — Three league games were played Thursday. Top-ranked Lane (13-1, 1-0) defeated Chemeketa (5-7, 0-1) 76-49, Linn-Benton (7-6, 1-0) beat Clark (2-10, 0-1) 65-45 and Portland (1-10, 0-1) lost to Clackamas (5-5, 1-0) 86-50. ... LBCC has three former North Douglas High standouts on its roster. Kalli Frieze, who played for UCC last year, is averaging 9.8 points and 6.3 rebounds as a starter. Jhana Lane averages 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds, while Sabrina MacDowell has seen limited time ... Dave Stricklin on the South: “It’s better from top to bottom than it’s been in a long time. The last few years there were a couple of dominant teams, but this year there could be five teams contending for four (NWAC tournament) spots.”

Sports Editor Tom Eggers can be reached at 541-957-4220 or email teggers@nrtoday.com.

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Sports Editor

Tom Eggers is the sports editor for The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4220 or by email at teggers@nrtoday.com.

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