Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 7:15 PM
KATY, Texas — It had to end sometime.
McNeese State’s two-year-plus reign over the Southland Conference came to a finish Friday as a well-rested Oral Roberts team simply had more gas in the tank and grabbed a 79-66 win over the Cowgirls in the tournament semifinal.
It was McNeese’s first loss in the SLC tournament since 2009, ending an eight-game winning streak, and ORU’s first win over the Cowgirls after losing both regular-season meetings.
“Regardless of the rankings this year, we’ve been saying McNeese is the team to beat from the beginning,” said ORU coach Misti Cussen. “We knew it would be a real battle when we had the opportunity to meet them again.”
Whether it is the final game in the careers of the Baggett twins storied careers remains to be seen. McNeese (18-14) will find out if it gets an invite to the WNIT or WBI sometime in the next few days.
“They’ve helped build the program to what it is today. They’ve set the standard for the future,” McNeese coach Brooks Donald Williams said of her seniors. “I hope they’ll have another opportunity to keep playing in some form or fashion and add another banner to the ones these two have already helped hang.”
The top-seeded Golden Eagles (17-12) received a bye into the semis while McNeese needed two wins in two days to get there. That reflected itself in the form of rust for ORU in the game’s first 4 minutes, but developed into better energy as the game went along.
McNeese had a 15-8 lead but saw it slip away by halftime after a nearly 8-minute stretch without a field goal.
“I think it probably helped us that we were a little fresher and they had played two games in two days,” Cussen said.
ORU shot 48.3 percent (28 of 58) from the field and 7 of 15 from 3-point range.
Shots that went down for the Cowgirls in wins over Northwestern State and Nicholls State the previous two days had trouble even getting to the rim in the second half. McNeese was 4 of 18 from long range after halftime.
“Second half’s harder to hit 3s because you’re not as fresh,” Ashlyn Baggett said. “So yeah, fatigue had a little bit to do with it. And their pressure made us feel uncomfortable in the first half.”
McNeese had all kinds of problems against the Golden Eagles defense, committing 18 turnovers — 12 in the first half — after committing five against ORU on Feb. 28.
“Honestly, I thought they were way more aggressive than they were the first two games in their zone,” Donald Williams said. “They did an excellent job causing chaos. We never felt comfortable.”
Despite the variety of offensive issues, there was still a sliver of hope that opened when ORU leading scorer Kevi Luper fouled out with 9:54 left after never being subbed out by Cussen.
The Cowgirls sniffed blood in the water, cutting a 10-point deficit to four in the next 50 seconds. But ORU rallied around senior Jaci Bigham and responded with a 10-0 run in the next 4 minutes.
“Once one of their best players fouled out, we felt we’d be able to have an upper hand offensively and defensively,” Caitlyn Baggett said. “But all their players stepped up and hit shots. They deserved it.”
Part of the problem for McNeese was its inability to make shots and set up a full-court press.
“Obviously to have a successful press you have to hit shots, and we weren’t able to finish and set it up as much as we wanted to,” Donald Williams said. “We certainly had a momentum shift, but their role players stepped up and hit big shots, and all of the sudden they’re back up. That’s the kind of team they are. You can’t trade baskets with them.”
Bigham tied Luper with a team-high 17 points, while Christian Key (13), Savannah Buck (11) and Taylor Cooper (10) were also in double figures.
Caitlyn scored a game-high 20 for the Cowgirls. Cecilia Okoye added 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Ashlyn finished with 16 points.