NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana-Lafayette women’s basketball team was on its way to getting over its Sun Belt Conference tournament semifinal hump, but the Ragin’ Cajuns stumbled on the climb and weren’t able to recover, getting eliminated 63-52 by Little Rock on Friday at Lakefront Arena.
It’s the second straight year the Cajuns (21-10) finished a win shy of playing for the tournament championship and an automatic NCAA berth. Little Rock (20-11), which has won 15 straight, will face Troy at 7 p.m. Saturday for the championship.
“Two years in a row, and we can’t get over the hump,” Cajuns coach Garry Brodhead said. “It’s a process.”
The Cajuns pinned down Little Rock’s offense for 25 minutes, but the Trojans were virtually unstoppable for a 10-minute stretch that they used to run away with the game.
With her team trailing by two with 5:19 to go in the third quarter, Little Rock’s Shanity James laid it in to knot the score at 31. Until that point, the Trojans shot just 11-for-25 from the floor. But after that, they almost couldn’t miss.
Starting with James’ layup, the Trojans hit 11 of their next 15 shots, and the Cajuns weren’t able to keep pace. The last basket in that stretch pushed Little Rock’s lead to double digits with a little more than four minutes to go.
“We just came out in the second half more aggressive — not so tight like we were in the first half,” said Little Rock guard Alexius Dawn, who scored all 11 of her points in the second half.
Cajuns senior guard Keke Veal looked like she might spark a last-ditch rally in the fourth quarter when she scored on back-to-back possessions to cut Little Rock’s lead to six with 2:51 to go. But less than a minute after those baskets, she committed her fifth foul on a charge call, sending her 17 points to the bench for the rest of the game.
“She caught me by surprise on the charge. When I had the other girl beat, I thought I had the wide-open lane, and she just stepped over,” Veal said. “I didn’t think she was paying attention.
“I knew we had to go. Our time was getting low; that’s why I took the ball in. I didn’t think she was going to be there for the charge.”
In a game featuring two of the Sun Belt’s stiffest defenses, neither team was able to get much going early.
Through the first five minutes, both teams had more turnovers than points. The Trojans finished the first quarter with more turnovers (nine) than shot attempts (eight).
But as they did in their first-round matchup against Texas-Arlington, the Cajuns opened up the offense with defensive pressure. They started the second quarter in a full-court press and used it to force two quick turnovers in the opening minute. Those turnovers turned into some of their first easy buckets of the game, and that got things going.
The Cajuns hit their first five shots of the second quarter to sprint to an 11-2 run, pushing their lead to a game-high eight points.
It didn’t help Little Rock that it played much of the first half without James, its leading scorer who picked up her second foul with 3:32 left in the first quarter and did not return until late in the first half. James still finished with a game-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
Brodhead said after the game that he has received an invitation to return to the Women’s Basketball Invitational, which the Cajuns won last year. But he hopes he’ll have options.
“I’d love to get into the WNIT — I think we’re good enough — but I know definitely that we’ve been invited to the WBI,” Brodhead said. “It’s something that we can look forward to, see if we can make a little run and have a little fun for our community.”