SAN DIEGO — After his team's 70-68 victory over Nevada Las Vegas in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional Friday night, Earnest Riggins was quick to point out that the win had demonstrated just how far the San Diego State women's basketball program had come in his two years as coach.
The victory marked the second straight year the Aztecs have advanced into the final 16 of the NCAA tournament after compiling 20-win seasons.
Now, San Diego State faces another challenge. The Aztecs (21-8) are headed to Monroe, La., to face fourth-ranked Louisiana Tech in the Midwest Regional semifinals Friday night.
For the Aztecs, who over the past two seasons have already gained a reputation as being one of the West Coast's better teams, the game provides a chance to gain some national recognition by beating a Lady Techster team that is trying for its NCAA-record seventh Final Four appearance and its third national title.
"I think this is a great chance for us to prove ourselves," Riggins said. "It's going to tell a lot how we do against a team like this. We know they have a lot of tradition and they're obviously very good, so we're excited about playing the ballgame."
Louisiana Tech, which graduated Olympians Janice Lawrence and Kim Mulkey from last year's NCAA runner-up, figured to face a rebuilding job this season. But, despite starting two sophomores and a freshman, the Lady Tech-sters finished 28-3 and gained the Midwest Regional's top seed.
"We like coming into this game as an underdog," Riggins said. "Nobody expected Jim Valvano (coach of North Carolina State's surprise NCAA men's basketball champion in 1983) to do it, either. But when you looked up, he was holding the trophy. If we don't worry about the crowd (8,000 are expected) and play our game, we can match up with them.
Like Riggins, the Aztec players are also excited about the chance to face a team so hallowed with tradition. But they certainly aren't in awe.
"I'm excited about playing them because I want to show people that we can beat the best," freshman guard Penny Toler said. "I know one thing, it's not going to be a blowout. We're a good team and they're a good team so it's going to be a showdown."
Toler is one Aztec who figures to be up for Friday's contest. Despite the fact last Friday's game against UNLV was her first in NCAA tournament competition, Toler played like a veteran, confidently going on to score a game-high 22 points.
"There's no way I'm going to be nervous because this is what we've all been playing for all season," she said. "If we play the way we're capable, we'll win. A lot of people are making a big deal out of them because they've won it (a national championship) before. Everyone knows them. But if we win, then everyone will have to take notice of San Diego State."
In order to win, though, SDSU will have to find a way to stop Louisiana Tech guard Pam Gant, who averaged 24.1 points a game this season.
"All I know about Louisiana Tech is that they have one player (Gant) who is too good," Aztec forward Paula Perczynski said.
And Perczynski should know. At Romeoville High School in Illinois, Perczynski's team played against Gant's Joliet East High squad six times and lost every game.
"She's one of the quickest guards I've ever seen," Perczynski said. "And she can shoot from anywhere and she plays great defense. She should try and guard Penny Toler."
Toler would welcome the challenge.
"I'm not worried about that," Toler said. "She may be Pam Gant, but I'm Penny Toler and everybody else is everybody else. When we played USC, Cheryl Miller got her points but we shut everyone else down. Friday, we're going to try and shut everybody down."
Forward Shelda Arceneaux did not practice on Monday because of a sore right knee but will play Friday. Coach Earnest Riggins said that Arceneaux was also held out of practice last week to rest the knee. Arceneaux will undergo arthroscopic surgery at the end of the season. . . . Riggins said that center Toni Wallace's sore right shoulder, which limited her play against UNLV, gave her no problems on Monday. . . . Even though the contest is still three days away, the Aztecs will leave for Monroe, La., today. Riggins said that he wants his team to get acclimated to the atmosphere as early as possible. . . . The game will be a homecoming of sorts for guard Rene Overton, who has family living in nearby Opelousas, La.