After falling in the quarterfinals twice in the past three years, Rayne girls basketball team breaks through with berth in state tournament _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ANGELA MAJOR -- North Central girls basketball coach Vanessa Taylor speaks to a player during the state tournament last season. The defending Class 1A champions are back in the state tournament again this season.

The start of Thursday’s Class 4A state quarterfinal didn’t give Rayne basketball coach Chester Randall any indication his team was prepared for the moment.

Sixth-seeded Rayne fell behind 7-0 against No. 14 Fair Park, which brought the partisan Shreveport crowd to its feet.

“We couldn’t even catch the ball because of our nerves,” Randall said. “We had so many unforced turnovers it was unreal.”

Rayne regained its composure and the lead near the end of the first quarter. The Wolves built a 27-20 halftime lead, which they extended to 46-33 on Tajne Butler’s 3-pointer with five minutes to play.

Fair Park responded with a late flurry that included a pair of 3-pointers, drawing to within 53-48, before Rayne pulled away for a 57-50 victory and its first trip in 26 years to the Allstate Sugar Bowl/Girls Top 28.

Rayne (30-2) faces No. 2 St. Michael the Archangel (27-8) at 2:45 Thursday at Southeastern Louisiana’s University Center in a Class 4A state semifinal.

“I’m enjoying the moment more for the girls,” Randall said. “To fall short of our goal in the quarterfinals two of the last three years and to finally get there, I’m enjoying seeing them happy to get over that hump.”

Rayne represents one of three teams from the Acadiana area headed for Hammond and the Top 28 tournament.

Top-seeded Iota (27-5) dispatched No. 24 Madison Parish 70-47 in a 3A quarterfinal to advance to its first state tournament in four years. The Bulldogs meet fourth-seeded Parkview Baptist (24-10) Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in a Class 3A state semifinal.

“None of these girls were on the last team that went,” Iota coach Meghann LeJeune said. “It’s really exciting for all the kids to experience this. It’s been our goal all season long.”

North Central (27-2) won its first Class 1A title a year ago and will appear in its fifth consecutive state semifinal.

The No. 2 Lady Canes are looking for a repeat of that achievement, challenging No. 6 Merryville (31-0) at 8 p.m. Thursday.

“We’ve reminded them that they have a target on their backs because they’re the defending state champions,” North Central coach Vanessa Taylor said. “We know every game there’s a possibility someone can beat us.”

Rayne was ousted 51-48 in last year’s quarterfinals at eventual state champion Salmen.

The Wolves, who lost starting sophomore Tasia Duhon to a torn ACL during a defeat at Barbe on Dec. 1, haven’t dropped a game since Dec. 2 and are riding a 25-game win streak.

This trip to the Top 28 marks the third overall for Rayne, which won the Class 3A title in 1990.

“When I saw the kids celebrating and a good number of people from the community, it sunk it,” Randall said. “It was a great feeling.”

As a former player, LeJeune understands Iota’s rich basketball tradition and what it means to bring the program back for the 17th time where they’ve won four state titles.

The Bulldogs are riding a modest four-game win streak since a 56-55 District 4-3A loss to St. Louis.

“That was a kind of a blessing in disguise,” LeJeune said. “It showed that you can get beat at any time if you don’t show up. Since then they’ve been eager and relished the fact they were the No. 1 seed and prove that was the case.”

North Central brings in a 16-game win streak, a stretch that featured a perfect run to the District 5-1A title and a 34-point average margin of victory through the playoffs.

However, there’s been no talk of repeating amongst the team, Taylor said.

“The pressure comes from the outside,” she said. “Last year they had a lot of family and friends constantly in their ear, and that’s what is going on. We don’t talk about it. It’s a goal that we set, and we’ve moved on.”