Under first-year coach Mike Newell, Dillard has won more games than the previous four years combined and is sitting in second place in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference.
However, bitter archrival Xavier may sit in the way of the Bleu Devils (17-10, 7-4) having a chance at capping off its turnaround season. The teams play Saturday at Dillard’s A.W. Dent Hall in the 133rd meeting between the two. Dillard is tied for 25th in the NAIA top 25 poll, and Xavier (19-10, 6-5) received 17 votes.
“I’ve been telling them all week that we need to beat Xavier to have a chance at the (NAIA) tournament,” Newell said. “That would give us 18 wins, and if we can get two in the GCAC tournament, we’d have 20. Xavier already has won 19. (The NAIA) is only going to take two or three teams from this region.”
Talladega (23-4, 10-1) already has won the regular-season championship heading into Saturday’s final games. Xavier is a game behind Dillard in third place.
“It’s exciting basketball heading into March,” Xavier coach Dannton Jackson said. “This is what it’s all about.”
The Gold Rush beat Dillard 69-61 on Feb. 6 at Xavier. Bleu Devils leading scorer Demetic Austin scored 19 points, but on 8-of-23 shooting, although he grabbed 14 rebounds. However, Xavier held point guard Dennis Hightower to five points and forward Dennis Reed to four.
Jackson said Austin remains a concern, particularly with offensive rebounding. He is the current GCAC player of the week after averaging 29.0 points on 51.3 percent shooting, including 54.5 percent on 3-point attempts in wins against Loyola and Philander Smith. Dillard outrebounded Xavier 41-31, getting 21 offensive rebounds. Austin had seven.
For Newell, it’s simply shoot better than the 34.3 percent it did the last time, including 5-of-23 (21.7 percent) on 3-point attempts.
In the women’s game, Dillard (11-15, 4-7) has lost four consecutive conference games since beating Xavier 57-52 in the first meeting this season, when the teams were tied for second place. However, the Bleu Devils are looking to gain a season’s sweep against the Gold Nuggets for the first time since the 1984-85 season.
The Bleu Devils could play spoiler to Xavier (18-11, 6-5), which is in a three-way tie for second place with Edward Waters and Philander Smith.
In the first meeting, Dillard held Xavier to one field goal for a three-minute period until the final 17 seconds of the game and knocking down nine of its last 10 free throws.
Post player Keona Favis missed the last three of the four-game losing streak with a knee injury but will be in the lineup Saturday.
“When she’s inside, she commands double teams and she gets the opposing post player in foul trouble,” said coach Norbert Rome. “We’ve had to go to more of a perimeter attack.”
Xavier, however, will be without 6-foot freshman Kiera Robinson, who sprained her ankle Monday at Tougaloo and is in a walking boot.
“We talking about a player who can guard anybody, from the perimeter to the post,” said coach Bo Browder, whose team has gone 2-2 since the loss to Dillard.
“She is one of our top players coming off the bench.”