SALINA, Kan. - When the No. 11 seed Northeastern A&M Lady Norse take the court at noon Tuesday in the opening round of the National Junior College Athletic Association Women's Division I National Tournament, one member of coach Jim Rowland's squad won't be intimidated by the surroundings of the Bicentennial Center.
Lady Norse sophomore guard BriAnna Garza doesn't mind all the hoopla involved with the tournament because she has been experiencing this type of attention since she was a very young girl.
Garza (5-8 from Austin, Texas) graduated from Austin's Lehman High School and spent her freshman season at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.
"I've been playing basketball ever since I can remember and at every level we had the type of success that gained our team a lot of attention," Garza said. "So, this isn't really anything that I'm not used to."
The Lady Norse carry a 23-9 season record into the school's ninth appearance in the Sweet 16 against No. 6 seed New Mexico Junior College of Hobbs.
Coach Drew Sanders' Thunderbirds are 26-4 on the year in their first tournament appearance.
After playing in only seven games for the William Jewell Lady Cardinals, Garza made the decision to transfer to NEO where she began the season as the starting point guard.
Her consistent performance through 29 games earned Garza a spot on the all-Region II honorable mention squad.
"I'm not shooting as well as I think I should be right now," Garza said. "I've spent quite a lot of extra time in the gym trying to adjust my shot and I think I have things figured out going into the tournament."
Through 32 games, Garza ranks second on the team in scoring with an 8.3 average while recording 66 assists and 35 steals. She is averaging 3.1 rebounds per game.
Although relegated to coming off the bench because of the play by freshman Eliana Fernandez, Garza has averaged almost nine points per game during the Lady Norse six-game winning streak.
"Bri may not be in the starting lineup, but she's the first one off the bench," Rowland said. "More importantly, she's always on the floor when the game ends because of her maturity and vast knowledge of the game."
One of the adjustments Garza had to make during the season was to develop confidence in her teammates ability to get her the ball on a consistent basis.
"It wasn't that I didn't have faith in my teammates to start with, but we've had so many players like Isle (freshman center Isla Teilane) step up their game that it gives you one more person as a guard that you can count on," Garza said. "That makes us more versatile as a team and a lot harder to defend.
"I prefer playing point guard, but I'll play wherever I'm needed to get a 'W,'" Garza said. "Playing with a point guard mindset helps me if I'm put out on the wing."
Rowland moved Garza from the 2- and 3-guard spots to a backup at the point because the Lady Norse struggled there earlier in the season.
"With her confidence and poise, Bri makes a very competent point guard," Rowland said. "We told her that we needed her to play a backup role, and although she took it hard at first, she's just fell into doing whatever it takes to win.
"Sometimes at this level it's not about starting, but finishing the game," Rowland said. "Because of her vast experience she understands that and has been very productive.
"She's the type of player I want on the floor because once the ball goes up, she's not scared to go attack the glass or take the last shot," Rowland said. "She wants the ball in her hands because she's not afraid to draw a foul and go to the line in a crucial situation."