LAFAYETTE — Breionne Cooper’s moment to take a few breaths and celebrate showed up in an unfamiliar fieldhouse, hundreds of miles from home.
While the UL-Lafayette women’s basketball team has built a 12-3 start to this season, the early stages for a quiet freshman from New Orleans included many challenges. There was a previous knee injury and other smaller injuries. In the words of coach Garry Brodhead, Cooper has been “banged up since the summer.”
There were typical adjustments for a freshman coming directly out of high school at West Jefferson.
Then there was the loss of a role model.
Cooper’s grandmother, Annie Gougisha, died in mid-November. While her teammates were in Puerto Rico battling two opponents, Cooper was remembering the impact of a woman loved by her family.
“She was active in the community ... a great individual and just loved to help people,” Cooper said.
On the court, Cooper had to catch up, even as the season moved toward Sun Belt Conference play.
“When freshmen miss anything, it sets them back,” Brodhead said. “We told her to work hard in practice and we pay you with playing time.”
The process was gradual. Cooper earned eight minutes and two points in a win over Appalachian State on Jan. 2. Fifteen minutes in Little Rock, Arkansas, produced six rebounds and a steal.
The Cajuns fell behind Georgia Southern 12-2 at Hanner Fieldhouse on Thursday, as Sierra Butler scored seven points for the Eagles in just over five minutes. When the Cajuns were able to force more GSU misses, Cooper was often in position to grab the ball.
In 31 minutes, the 6-foot-3 Cooper topped everybody with 13 rebounds. She also had eight points in a 56-39 Cajuns win.
“I did celebrate,” Cooper said, “because it showed that practice paid off and I did something good in a game.”
Cooper’s rebounding is not about dislodging people from their positions. Brute force is not part of the plan that has helped her secure 52 rebounds in 182 minutes.
“She is so dang athletic,” Brodhead said. “She is 6-3, has long arms and can jump out of the gym. She got injured two summers ago and really didn’t rehab that well. Now she is rehabbed and ready to go.
“Her mindset has changed, too. I don’t know if anybody ever told her how important the rebounds were. We sat her down and told her, ‘The No. 1 thing we need you to do is rebound.’ ”
Senior guard Kia Wilridge is the Cajuns’ leading rebounder at 4.9 per game. Those rebounds can lead to a fast break — but when a guard like Wilridge pulls in a loose ball, she can’t take off at full-speed. She has to dribble and survey the floor.
“If we have a hybrid (player) get the rebound, then a guard can release (on a fast break),” Brodhead said. “We try to run Kia out. It’s not as effective having a guard bring it up.”
Another way that Cooper has established a presence close to the rim is by blocking shots. The Cajuns had 36 blocks last year. Cooper has 10 already this season. Teaming up that skill with solid defensive positioning is a combination Brodhead looks forward to.
“She is still learning,” Brodhead said. “She took her first charge in Little Rock — probably the first charge of her life. That is big for us. If she can take charges and learn some of those aspects of the defensive side and protect the paint, that will definitely help us.”