Troy women’s basketball coach Chanda Rigby promised exciting offense when she arrived at the school four years ago. She won her first championship because of stellar defense.
In a matchup of contrasting styles, fourth-seeded Troy beat No. 2 Little Rock at its own game in the Sun Belt tournament final, winning 61-60 Saturday night at Lakefront Arena. Tournament MVP Ashley Beverly Kelley hit a pull-up jumper just outside the foul line with 21 seconds left for the winning points, but Troy needed two huge defensive plays to clinch the second NCAA berth in program history and the first since 1997.
ArJae’ Saunders came up with a steal with 29 seconds left, setting up Kelley’s basket. Then, Caitlyn Ramirez blocked Monique Townson’s driving lay-up attempt with one second left to seal the victory, starting a wild celebration on the court.
Troy (20-12), the Sun Belt’s top offensive team in Rigby’s four-year tenure, could not get its transition game going against the league’s best defensive team for most of the night. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.
Saunders led Troy with 21 points, and Beverly Kelley added 17. La’Tia Fils-Aime’ contributed an unexpected 10 points off the bench, more than double her season average of 4.9.
Sharde’ Collins scored 19 for Little Rock (19-12), which had won 15 in a row and was seeking its fifth NCAA tournament berth in five years. Shanity James added 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Rigby has won championships before in Louisiana. She guided Loranger High to a pair of state titles in her five-year tenure there from 1996-2000, and her Troy teams exhibit the same attacking style.
Trailing 35-30 early in the third quarter, Little Rock went on a 17-2 run to go ahead 49-40 and appeared ready to repeat as Sun Belt tournament champion. Guard Alexius Dawn, who was scoreless in the first half, had nine points during the spurt, beating Troy down the court for a pair of layups.
Troy responded with a 10-2 run to end the quarter, getting its first two treys of the game on back-to-back baskets by Claresa Banks. La’tia Fils-Aime’s putback closed the gap to 49-47 in the final minute.
Neither team led by more than three points in the fourth quarter.
Troy, which hit 12 3-pointers in its semifinal win against top-seed Arkansas State, went 0 for 6 from behind the arc in the first half and still led 33-30 at the break.
Saunders and Beverly Kelley accounted for all but seven of those points. After going 1-for-8 a day earlier, Saunders found her range on a tough, contested leaner that gave Troy a 5-0 lead. She hit a series of shots off the dribble and even banked in one by accident, scoring 15.
Little Rock’s two leading scorers for the year—James and Dawn--struggled early. James went 4 of 12 in the first half, and Dawn missed all four of her shots.