LAFAYETTE — There’s no time to sit back and rest on your accomplishments for the Louisiana-Lafayette women’s basketball team, even if they are bordering on history-making.
After all, the last nine games of the regular season will determine the Ragin’ Cajuns’ status and positioning in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
The Cajuns are fifth in the league at 6-5 after Saturday’s 83-81 double-overtime victory at Texas State (7-4), and there’s a logjam in the middle of the league, with the third- and eighth-place teams separated by just two games. The top eight teams advance to the March 11-14 tournament in New Orleans.
UL-Lafayette’s next six games come against teams in that third through eighth group, beginning with Thursday’s 5 p.m. contest against Appalachian State in the Cajundome. The Cajuns also meet Texas-Arlington in a second straight home game at 5 p.m. Saturday.
UL-Lafayette lost 63-51 at Appalachian State (10-9, 5-5) on Jan. 5, during a three-game losing streak to begin conference play.
“We’re a different team than we were in early January,” director of operations Chelsea Wolf said. “That was at the beginning of conference, and we’ve grown as a team. We’re definitely stronger offensively.”
That was apparent from Saturday’s win, when the Cajuns (14-6) put five players in double figures, came back from a slow start to shoot 43.8 percent in the second half and 53.3 percent in overtime and had by far their best offensive output of the year.
More importantly, the much shorter Cajuns had a 55-41 rebound advantage, including a team-high nine boards from 5-foot-5 point guard Kia Wilridge.
“We were very aggressive on the boards,” coach Garry Brodhead said. “We talked before the game that we were going to have to keep (Texas State) off the boards. I have to give it to the kids; they listened to what we were saying and played really hard. You win games when you do things like that.”
Freshman Simone Fields, one of five starting underclassmen, had five of her career-high 15 points in the second overtime session. Playing not far from her San Antonio hometown, Fields had a three-point play with 1:45 left to break a 73-73 tie.
Then, with 8 seconds left, she had a clinching basket that nullified a TSU 3-pointer at the buzzer. She finished the game 7-for-10 from the field.
“We tried to get her the ball, and she was able to finish,” Wolf said. “She’s learning to capitalize on that. She’s very unselfish and can kick the ball out to our guards, so getting the ball to her opens up opportunities.”
Sophomore Jaylyn Gordon had a team-high 22 and continues to lead the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game.
UL-Lafayette matched its season win total of last year with Saturday’s win at Texas State.
The Cajuns, who finished 14-16 last year, hadn’t won 14 games by the end of January since the 2006-07 season, when they finished 25-9 and made their only appearance in the NCAA tournament.
UL-Lafayette has won 14 games in a season only eight times — and only four times in the past 26 seasons.
The Cajuns rank fifth nationally in turnover margin, forcing 7.1 more than they commit through 20 games. The next closest Sun Belt teams, Arkansas-Little Rock and Troy, are at 5.5 per game.
“Our kids are relentless at that,” Wolf said. “Even when shots aren’t falling, we’re diving at balls and we’re getting rebounds and attacking again. I think that wears out teams when they have to play defensive possession after defensive possession against us, and it shows when we start pressing.”
UL-Lafayette had a nine-game streak of forcing at least 20 turnovers snapped at TSU, but the Cajuns still have forced 20 or more turnovers in 14 of 20 games this season.
UL-Lafayette also ranks in the nation’s top 40 and leads the Sun Belt in fewest turnovers per game (14.3). Wilridge leads the league in steals with 2.7 per game.
“I think Kia’s the best defensive player in the conference at 5-foot-5,” Brodhead said. “She’s the best on-ball defender we have, and she can disrupt a team’s whole offense with the way she gets after it.”