For the third straight year in the Southland Conference tournament, the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears slipped off the mountain.
The UCA women, seeded third, were handed their fourth straight defeat this season Friday. In typical fashion for the season, when seventh-seeded and old rival McNeese State overcame a seven-point deficit late in eliminating them from the conference tournament with a 66-62 victory at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas.
The Cowgirls (19-12) advance to Saturday’s semifinals against top seed Stephen F. Austin.
UCA (18-12), who led the conference most of the season until a swoon during the final two weeks, possibly could continue its season if it receives an invitation to the WBI tournament (composed of teams that don’t make either the NCAA field or the WNIT), a tourney they participated in four years ago when it lost in the first round to Alabama-Birmingham.
“I felt like McNeese really took it to us,” said second-year coach Sandra Rushing. “They’re a tremendous team. They had a great game plan.
They’ve been here; they’re an experienced team. Maybe it was first game jitters. Any time you lose, it’s always difficult.
“I think we gave up 40 points in the paint. I just really think they wanted it more than us.”
McNeese held a 40-26 edge on the glass while also getting a double-double from Cecelia Okoye (18 points, 15 rebounds) in what was a physical contest between the two rivals.
“I guess that’s one of my biggest complaints this year is that I don’t think we’re physical enough as a team and that goes back to some of the things we need to change,” Rushing said. “If you’re small, you need to use your quickness. I want to fight back a little more, that’s all.
“I think McNeese had a little more depth than us and that’s huge. They’ve got great players and they’ve got a bench. We still has some young people on the bench and some injured.”
You’ve got to have players and depth and its coming. I thought we had a great recruiting class last year and it helped us finish third.”
“I thought we did just a great job in answering their runs,” said McNeese State coach Brooks Donald Williams.
The last run was the difference.
Trailing 60-56 with 1:02 left, the Cowgirls came out of a timeout and Allison Baggett’s whose 3-point attempt took one long bounce before falling in to cut the margin to one with 56 seconds remaining
“Whenever I released it, I was thinking that it’s in,” Baggett (14 points) said, “but when it hit the rim, I got frustrated, but it went in and everything’s good.”
The Sugar Bears’ Courtney Duever had a shot go in and out and the Cowgirls’ Jayln Johnson (19 points, six assists) scored on a fast-break basket, then converted the ensuing free throw to give the Cowgirls a 62-60 lead with 20 seconds remaining.
The Sugar Bears (18-12), who put in the hands of Southland Player of the Year Courtney Duever. The senior, five of 15 from the field, had a good look at the potential game-tying basket, but the shot was short. Okoye made two free throws to make the score 64-60.
“MVPs are supposed to be making those shots, and I didn’t,” an emotional Duever (13 points, five rebounds) said afterward. “I had the shot and I didn’t knock it down. ... I think it was pretty physical but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to come out and play. I think that this whole year it’s been a physical game and that doesn’t have anything to do with us losing.”
UCA senior Micah Rice came off the bench to score 19 points with four rebounds and four steals.
Brittany Agee had 18 points and six assists for Central Arkansas, which shot 42 percent from the field.
I’m very proud of these two seniors and what they’ve done for the Sugar Bear program,” Rushing said. “It’s been a privilege to coach them. I can promise you we haven’t always agreed but I’m happy I had the opportunity to coach Courtney (Duever) for two years and Micah (Rice) for a year and a half. I am proud of what we accomplished with so many new players and so many freshman and we needed to get here so they could get the experience.”