By BRETT MARSHALL
In recent years during the last week of January, the Garden City Lady Buffaloes have made the trek to central Kansas to compete in the Newton Invitational.
And for the most part, they have had lukewarm success.
There is good reason for that as the remainder of the eight-team bracket is full of some of the state's top teams in Classes 4-5-6A.
This year is no exception, as no fewer than seven of the eight teams in the field are among the latest rankings compiled by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
The Lady Buffs (8-3) are ranked No. 8 in Class 6A and will take on Class 5A No. 6-ranked Wichita Bishop Carroll (8-2) in the 4:45 p.m. game today. They are in the lower half of the bracket with No. 2-seeded Bishop Miege (8-1), the No. 2-ranked Class 4A-I team. Miege faces Olathe Northwest at 6:30 p.m. and Northwest is currently ranked No. 9 in Class 6A.
On the top side of the bracket in the 3 p.m. tourney opener, it will be unbeaten Wichita Kapaun-Mt. Carmel (10-0), the No. 1 team in Class 5A taking on Class 6A Dodge City (4-4), the only team not in this week's rankings. In the other top half bracket game, it sends Andover Central (8-2), No. 5 in Class 4A-I against host Newton (7-2), the No. 9 team in Class 5A.
A victory puts the Lady Buffs in the Friday semifinals at 6:30 p.m. while a loss would drop them into the 3 p.m. Friday consolation contest against either Miege or Olathe Northwest.
The Lady Buffs have had nine days off following a 68-57 home victory over Ulysses on Jan. 21.
Carroll's losses have been to South (41-23) and to Kapaun-Mt. Carmel (44-38).
"You gotta go play 'em," Upton said on Tuesday following practice. "It gets us ready for late February and early March (sub-state, potential state)."
The teams met last year in the consolation semifinals, with Carroll pulling away for a 54-46 triumph. The Lady Buffs then routed Goddard 51-27 to claim seventh place.
"They obviously have some good players and they return their 6-0 post player and they've got a couple of guards who shoot the ball well," Upton said of Carroll. "We hang out hat on defense around here, and we won't give up the easy shots. We want to make it tough on them."
The Lady Buffs are averaging 55.2 points a game while giving up just 38.6. While shooting 39 percent overall from the field (42 percent from 2-point and 26 percent from 3-point), the Lady Buffs are holding their opponents to a meager 32 percent overall (35 percent from 2-point and 22 percent from behind the arc).
Rebounding has also been a strength for Upton's team, owning a plus-five advantage on the boards. Despite turning the ball over an average of 17.7 times a game, the Lady Buffs are forcing opposing teams into 23.6 miscues.
"I do wish our turnovers were a little lower, something less than 15," Upton said. "We did a better job of sharing the ball early, but then defenses figured out how to defend us, so our players have had to find their own shots sometimes."
Junior Jaymie Bernbeck is the team's leading scorer at 17.5 points and also averages a team-best 6.3 rebounds. Senior Taryn Tempel is the only other double-figure scorer, hitting for 12.3 points a game. Guards Jacksenie Tornero and Tonnia McKee are averaging 5.9 and 5.8 points, respectively.
"Others are going to have to step up and score, but when we get out in transition, that's when Jacksenie and Tonnia are at their best," Upton said.
If there's been an Achilles heel this season, it has been at the free-throw line, where the Lady Buffs are connecting on just 56.6 percent of their attempts (115 of 203). Of the regulars, only Tornero hits for more than 70 percent, making 15 of 21 for 71 percent.
"We've done better at the line in the past than we're doing," Upton said. "I still believe we're a better shooting team than we've shown. Sometimes, if you work 'em to death there, they can't shoot. Other times, you leave them alone, and they make them. It's a mental thing. All I've tried to do is tell them to go up there, don't waste time, get in a rhythm and then shoot it quick."
As with any coach, Upton would like nothing more than to leave Newton on Saturday with a 3-0 tourney record, but he's also realistic that the Lady Buffs have their toughest challenges of the season right in front of them.
"It's one of those tournaments where you have to fight hard, and you just try to survive and advance," Upton said.
First round schedule: Thursday--Upper bracket: 3 p.m., Wichita Kapaun-Mt. Carmel vs. Dodge City; 8:15 p.m., Andover Central vs. Newton; Lower bracket: 6:30 p.m., Bishop Miege vs. Olathe Northwest; 4:45 p.m., Bishop Carroll vs. Garden City.