ADA — The only thing East Central women’s basketball coach Kent Franz really wanted this Christmas was to keep playing.

Franz’s young Lady Tigers went into the holiday break riding a four-game winning streak that evened their season record at 4-4 — a streak similar to the five straight ECU won just before Christmas a year ago. But Franz hopes the similarity in the two seasons ends there.

The Lady Tigers came back from their break last January and embarked on a four-game road trip to Texas that produced four straight losses. This season, with less time between games and three straight home contests to open the 2006 portion of the schedule, Franz is expecting a much better result.

“Year in and year out, we’ve started kind of rough, then we get things figured out just in time for the Christmas break,” he said. “This year, though, we’ve only got six days off, where in the past we’ve taken off as much as three weeks.

“This is a huge week to try to re-establish our momentum,” added Franz, whose team beat a good Missouri Southern club on Dec. 20 to close out 2005 and — along with the 7-3 ECU men — will face Panhandle State Monday, Abilene Christian Thursday and Angelo State Saturday at the Kerr Activities Center. “If we have any intention of getting an at-large bid (to the NCAA Division II basketball tournament), we have to win games like we’re going to play this week.”

Panhandle State will come into Monday’s contest with a 6-6 record after losing back-to-back home contests to Missouri Southern (82-55) and New Mexico Highlands (67-65) to close out 2005, while Abilene Christian (4-6) and Angelo State (8-2 and ranked No. 22 in Division II) were picked 1-2 in the LSC South in the coaches’ pre-season poll.

“Panhandle is scrappy, and they’re good enough to come in here and beat us if we don’t play well,” Franz noted. “Abilene Christian and Angelo are two perennial conference powers who can come in here and CLOBBER us is we don’t play well.”

The Lady Tigers, who don’t have a senior on the roster, have shown steady improvement since struggling through their four-game losing streak to open the season, and Franz said consistency and a newfound swagger on defense have been the major reasons for the turnaround.

“We’re getting close to playing a full 40 minutes,” he said. “We were having about a 10-minute lull each game early in the season, and that was killing us. Now we’re at about 35-and-5. When we get to 40, we’re going to be tough to beat.

“Defensively, this can be the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here, hands-down,” added Franz, whose club is surrendering 63 points per game for the season but only 51 per outing over the last four contests. “We have enough speed and quickness to cover the floor.”

Franz said speed, quickness and a suddenly potent bench are the biggest differences between this team and his up-and-down 2004-2005 club — which began its LSC North schedule with three wins in four games but lost seven of its last nine.

“There’s no comparison between this team and last year’s team in depth, speed and quickness,” he explained.

The major reason for the sudden improvement is an infusion of new talent, including three talented freshmen — Idabel’s Kacey Thomas, Dover’s Veronica Valles and McCurtain product Sarah Taylor — who are playing a larger role with each passing game. Thomas has started ECU’s last two contests, and she was on the floor with Valles (a 5-3 point guard) and Taylor (a six-foot post player) during the final two minutes of the Missouri Southern victory.

“Our freshmen are starting to get it,” Franz noted. “The game is starting to slow down for them.”

Franz has blended his three prized recruits with transfers Rashounda Ramsey (a six-foot junior from Murray State) and Kiesha Thomas (a 5-6 junior guard from Drury University) and holdovers Jastin Flenory, Kristie Dodgion, Amber Gatlin, Lacey Goldwire and Ada High product Tenecia Miller to form a team without a true star but with a lot of dangerous elements.

“This team has a chance to be one of the best I’ve ever had,” Franz said. “I don’t know if they can be as good as my 1996 team (which went 30-5 and finished the season ranked fifth nationally), but they can be as good as any other team I’ve had if they play 40 minutes.”

Miller — a 5-5 junior guard — is the only ECU player averaging in double figures (just over 10 points per game), but Flenory is a 5-9 sophomore who rebounds like a six-footer, flashes to the basket like a guard and is shooting almost 60 percent from the field for the season; Dodgion is a hard-nose post player who averages almost 10 points per game and shares the team lead in rebounding; Gatlin, who has a deadly outside shot, is averaging about nine points per game; and Lacey Goldwire has evolved into one of the LSC’s best sixth men while averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds (tied with Dodgion for the team lead).

In fact, the ECU bench has been so good during the recent winning streak that Franz said he would like to figure out a way where NONE of his players starts a game.

“The last few games, we’ve gotten great bench production,” he noted. “I wish we could start a game without starting anybody, because everybody has been so good coming off the bench.”

Northeastern has won three straight LSC North titles and was the pre-season choice of the coaches again for 2005-2006, but the Lady Reds have been inconsistent. They defeated Angelo on Dec. 8 (when the Lady Rams were ranked 17th in the nation) but came back to lose to Abilene Christian two days later, then Angelo routed ACU when the two teams met later in the month. Franz said the uncertainty in the conference gives his team has an opportunity to challenge for a division crown.

“The North is about as open as it’s been in any year since I’ve been here,” he noted. “We can all be dominant on a given night, but I don’t think anybody will run away and hide.”