It was better late than never for the Louisiana-Lafayette women’s basketball team.
UT-Arlington gave it all it had, but the Cajuns survived the scare with a strong fourth-quarter push to beat the Mavericks 59-53 in the opening round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament on Wednesday at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
“It came down to chaos,” coach Garry Brodhead said.
The Cajuns outscored UT-Arlington 24-13 in the fourth quarter, and much of that came in the closing minutes of the game when the Cajuns pressure defense started to finally come through and set up some easy buckets on the offensive end.
After an Amara Wainwright 3-pointer put UT-Arlington ahead by five with 2:54 to go, it was all Cajuns down the stretch.
Sylvana Okde hit the last of her three 3-pointers with 2:26 to go, and the game started to unravel on the Mavericks.
“It probably helped us get some momentum on our side,” Okde said. “It was a game changer.”
The Cajuns tied the game at 51 on a Kia Wilridge basket with 1:38 to go, and then the Cajuns defense took over with steals on the Mavericks next three possessions, resulting in a 9-0 Cajuns run that turned a five-point deficit into a four-point lead.
“When it was time to turn it on, they did what they do best,” said UT-Arlington coach Krista Gerlich.
Senior guard Keke Veal was responsible for the first two of those three straight possessions that ended in steals, including the one that led to Simone Fields’ go-ahead layup.
That late defensive effort came on the heels of a night where she struggled offensively. She finished the game with 15 points, but shot just 5-of-19 from the floor and 0-for-7 from the 3-point line.
“At the beginning of the game she was going through the motions, she was frustrated,” Brodhead said. “But that’s Keke’s MO. When her back’s against the wall, she steps up.”
The Cajuns finished the game on a 13-2 run.
“The last three minutes of the game is how we wanted to play the whole game,” Brodhead said.
The first half was an offensive slog for both teams.
“The first half wasn’t an exciting first half,” Brodhead said. “We were kind of sluggish.”
The Cajuns shot 41.7 percent in the first 20 minutes of the ball game, but that included a 4-for-13 second quarter.
Late in the first half, the Cajuns went on a scoring drought that lasted more than four minutes where they missed five straight shot attempts and a pair of free throws.
Luckily for the Cajuns, the Mavericks were also having a hard time finding the basket. They were playing without leading scorer Rebecca Van Dijk who found out just hours before the game about a family emergency that required her to go home. The 6-foot-5 Van Dijk averaged 12.2 points and 8.9 rebounds this season.
“During pregame we got some upsetting news and it kind of happened at that point,” Gerlich said. “We were all hands on deck … and we kind of got the carpet pulled out on us.”
UT-Arlington shot just 31.8 percent from the floor in the first half and made just four of its final 17 shot attempts in the period, and that is including a buzzer beating layup that cut the Cajuns lead to 23-22 at the break.
But the Mavericks’ offense woke up in the third quarter. They took their first lead of the game on Allyson Te’o’s layup 2:28 into the second half, and went on to outscore the Cajuns 18-12 in the third period to take a 40-35 lead into the fourth quarter.
Simone Fields was the only reason the Cajuns were in striking distance at all in the second half. She scored eight of the Cajuns 12 points in the third quarter, and 14 of her game-high 18 points came in the second half.
“Somebody had to step up,” Fields said. “We came out sluggish, and I decided that had to be me.”
The Cajuns will play No. 2 seed Little Rock at 2 p.m Friday. The Trojans enter the game riding a 14-game winning streak.