Hot Springs, Ark. – Friday’s opening round game of the Sun Belt Conference championship has been on the mind of first-year Louisiana women’s basketball head coach Garry Brodhead since the day he was hired. After the 11th-seeded Cajuns out-lasted North Texas, 80-74, in double overtime, it is certain that the game will be in the memories of the Louisiana players for a long time.
The win capped a day of first round upsets in the opening round of the tourney as all three lower seeded teams won. No. 10 Troy toppled No. 7 South Alabama, 70-49, and No. 9 ULM ran away at the end to defeat Florida Atlantic, 70-63.
“We pointed to this game way back to last spring,” an exhausted Brodhead said following the battle. “When you look at our history, we hadn’t won a league tournament game in like six years. We knew that we’d be a little short-handed all year and we might not have the best of records, but we knew that if we focused hard, we could win a tournament game and end that streak.
“I just knew that we were going to get it done, even if it took five or six overtimes. This team has been fighters all year long and even though we haven’t won as many as we’ve lost, there have been times when you could see this kind of determination.
“The game got down to defense and the one thing that we’ve been able to do this year is defend. We’ve lost games this year because we couldn’t score a basket when we needed to, but we haven’t lost one yet because we’ve had the lead and couldn’t stop them from scoring.
“I feel for North Texas because they played a great game, it was a classic college tournament game,” Brodhead added.
Only seven players saw action for the Cajuns with five scoring in double figures. Keke Veal led the way with 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocked shots and Sylvana Okde made five three-pointers en route to a 16-point night and Ashley Benjamin added 13 points. Jasmin Mills recorded her fourth double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds while Brandi Schambough converted four treys for 12 points.
Alexis Hyder led North Texas with 25 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out early in the second overtime. Loryn Goodwin added 14 points while Laura McCoy chipped in with 13 and Sara Stanley 10.
In a game that saw the Ragin’ Cajuns lead by as many as 16 points in the opening half only to trail by two at the intermission, the contest turned into a slugfest with two fighters standing toe-to-toe and taking each others’ best shots.
North Texas opened the second overtime period with four straight points as BreAnna Dawkins scored in the lane and Stanley converted a pair of free throws with 3:29 left. In the process, Hyder fouled out at the 4:12 mark and Dawkins exited with five fouls at 2:45.
That was all the Cajuns needed as Wilridge scored on a short jumper and Veal made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 70-70 with 2:15 left.
Louisiana took the lead for good on a Veal three-pointer with 1:44 left. It was the season-high 11th of the game for the Cajuns.
North Texas passed the ball into the lane, but Wilridge blocked McCoy’s shot and Benjamin rebounded the ball and was fouled by McCoy, who became the third Mean Green player to foul out.
The Cajuns went seven-for-eight from the line down the stretch to secure the win.
“Once we got that lead, we weren’t going to give it up,” Brodhead said. “We had the win in sight.”
The first half was a game of runs as Louisiana dominated the first 10 minutes before North Texas raced back to take a 34-32 lead at the break.
After North Texas jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead, the Cajuns used their long distance shooting to come back.
Okde sandwiched a pair of treys around a Veal jumper in the lane to give the Cajuns an 8-4 lead (16:26).
After McCoy made a pair of free throws to make it an 8-6 game, Jasmin Mills started a 13-1 Cajuns run by scoring in the lane.
Okde and Brandi Schambough followed with a pair of treys and Mills converted one of two free throws to put Louisiana ahead, 23-7 with 9:32 left.
As quickly as the offense caught fire, it cooled off.
With the Ragin’ Cajuns leading 27-11 after four straight points by Benjamin, North Texas ran off nine straight points to close to within 27-20 at the 4:20 mark.
Veal ended the run with a pair of free throws but the Mean Green used another 9-0 burst to tie the game at 29-29 on a four-point play by Desiree Nelson with 2:10 left.
Louisiana would take a 30-29 lead when Kia Wilridge made one of two free throws but the Mean Green scored five straight points to open up a 34-30 lead. A basket by Wilridge with eight secons left brought UL to within two at the break.
North Texas extended the lead to 39-34 at the 15:02 mark and lead 42-37 (12:46) before the Cajuns ran off five straight points, the first three coming on a Schambough trey, to tie the game at 42-42 with 10:46 left.
Neither team led by more than four points as the rest of regulation featured six ties and seven lead changes.
Down 58-57, Louisiana tied that game at 58-58 when Benjamin made one of two free throws with 1:37 left. The Cajuns had a chance to win it in regulation, but Hyder blocked Veal’s driving jumper with three seconds left.
North Texas had the chance to win it at the end of the second overtime, but the Mean Green waited too long to get into their offense and couldn’t get off a good shot, and the game was tied at 66-66.
The difference for the Cajuns came from long-range as UL went 11-for-29 from three-point (.379) while UNT was just five-for-25 (.200).
The Cajuns forced 26 North Texas turnovers, making just 17, and had a 24-23 edge in points off turnovers.
The Cajuns advance to the second round and will face No. 3 Western Kentucky on Saturday (March 9) at 2:00 p.m. on the Convention Center Court following the No. 5 FIU vs. No. 4 Arkansas State game, which tips off at 11:30 a.m. Regular season champion Middle Tennessee will face No. 9 ULM at 12:00 noon in Summit Arena followed by No. 10 Troy vs. No. 7 UALR at 2:30 p.m.