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(Rick Hickman / American Press)<br>

(Rick Hickman / American Press)

Gazzolo: Cowgirls see light at end of tunnel

Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 11:05 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Coming in from the cold, the Cowgirls stepped into the darkness that has become their up-and-down season.

However, they may just have found the light.

Two weeks ago, McNeese State’s women’s team lost to Lamar inside a chilly Burton Coliseum.

Their shooting was just as cold as the heat-challenged building on that day. The loss also seemed to put the Cowgirls’ season in the deep freeze with three early conference losses.

After a pair of emotional road wins the Cowgirls truly resurrected their campaign Wednesday night in the at times lighting-challenged Lake Charles Civic Center.

Jumping out to an early lead, McNeese took control of its game over Stephen F. Austin long before the lights fully came on in the building 6 minutes into the game.

But despite holding a commanding 15-point lead at one time, the Cowgirls still found themselves stumbling toward the light late in the contest.

Their 66-60 victory over the Ladyjacks was the club’s fifth win in six games and put them somehow back into the Southland Conference race.

Yet you felt at the end that this was more of a great escape rather than a true statement victory. Just where the SLC preseason favorites and two-time champs are is still a mystery this late in the season.

“I think we are coming together nicely at the right time,” said head coach Brooks Donald Williams. “We have made big strides, especially with those players coming off the bench.”

For the opening 16 minutes the Cowgirls had the look of a favorite. Their defense was suffocating, forcing eight early turnovers with five of those coming on steals.

They were setting a fast pace, forcing tempo and jumping all over Stephen F. Austin shooters.

Then, in the blink of an eye, it was all gone.

The confidence seemed lost. The swagger was missing and the shots were once again not falling.

McNeese even lost the lead with just under 8 minutes remaining. What had started as a fun not was suddenly scary.

“I think it looks like we struggle when we don’t shoot the ball well,” said Donald Williams. “It’s at those times when we have to have our defense really step up and keep us going.

“And that is when we need our bench the most. I think they responded tonight.”

One player on the bench really responded Wednesday. Freshman Allison Baggett, the youngest of a trio of sisters who play for McNeese, hit the game’s biggest shot. Her 3-pointer with 41.2 seconds left lifted the Cowgirls to a 62-57 lead and proved to be the dagger they needed. It also gave her a career-high of 19 points.

That may be good for the future, but it is the present that matters most to this team.

“I think our league is better than people think and teams are really going to come after us,” Donald Williams said. “It is up to us to respond, but I like what I see. We are coming together. Now we have to be more consistent.”

That will be key as the Cowgirls will need to win three straight games to earn their third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, which was the real goal going into this year.

This season the Cowgirls have beaten the best the SLC has to offer, holding a 3-1 record over teams that they entered Wednesday either behind or even with in the standings. Yet they are still fighting for their lives in third place, two games off the pace of Sam Houston State.

“That bodes well for our confidence and for our chances,” said Donald Williams. “It doesn’t really matter how you play early, it only matters how you are playing late.”

What matters most for McNeese is how well players not named Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett play. That is the key to this club’s tourney run.

And if it is another one by the name of Baggett picking up the slack, that seems only fitting.

After last night, Allison might just have left the light on for her sisters, and the future of this program at the same time.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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