By CHRIS DUNCAN
KATY, Texas — Oral Roberts’ three seniors endured a coaching transition and a conference change before finally earning a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Kevi Luper scored 26 points, and Oral Roberts secured its first tournament berth since 2008 with a 72-66 win over Sam Houston State in the Southland Conference women’s championship game on Saturday.
Jaci Bigham had 17 points and five assists for the Golden Eagles (18-12), who went 28 for 33 from the free-throw line and took advantage of 20 turnovers by the Bearkats. Oral Roberts and first-year coach Misti Cussen finished their first season in the Southland with the school’s sixth conference tournament championship.
When Luper, Bigham and fellow senior Savanna Buck first signed with Oral Roberts, they set out to make the NCAA tournament in each of their four seasons. That didn’t work out through their last three years in the Summit League, and Cussen, a longtime assistant, took over the program last April when Jerry Finkbeiner left for Utah State.
The Golden Eagles began playing in the Southland last July, and the seniors started over in many ways, with only one more chance to achieve their stated objective. They won six of their last seven regular-season games and exchanged emotional hugs with Cussen after their tournament run ended on Saturday.
“It’s been a very tough journey,” said Luper, named the tournament’s most valuable player. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons, and we’ve learned them the hard way. But it made our team who we are today, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Cussen was Finkbeiner’s top assistant for 16 seasons before moving into the head coaching position. The Golden Eagles lost to South Dakota State in overtime of the Summit League championship in 2010, lost Bigham to a torn knee ligament in 2011 and faded at the end of the 2011-12 season.
“They experienced a lot of stress and a lot of tension during the spring and summer,” Cussen said of her seniors, “because they knew that the final curtain call was on its way. And then to go through the changes with the conference and the coaching change and everything else, I really felt like my job early on was just to focus on today.”
“We didn’t start to talk about everything else until maybe the last two to three weeks of the conference season,” she added. “We knew it was coming, but we just didn’t want to dwell on it.”
To win the championship, Oral Roberts had to beat the team it tied for the regular-season title. The championship game was close all the way, with the lead changing hands 10 times.
“It was a grind, and it was tough,” Cussen said. “By the last 5 minutes, both teams were tired and there were several shifts in momentum. We probably just had the final shift in momentum.”
Sequeena Thomas scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Bearkats (18-14), who fell one win short of earning their first NCAA tournament berth.
“All of our seniors have come a long way for a program that struggled to even have a winning season to now being co-champs in the regular season,” Thomas said. “We just fight hard, play together, and it hurts that we don’t have the opportunity of cutting down some more nets.”
The Bearkats struggled to solve Oral Roberts’ trapping defense early, giving away six turnovers in the opening 13 minutes. Sam Houston State trailed 30-25 at the break after shooting 33 percent in the first half and committing 10 turnovers.
“We made some mistakes of where we threw the ball,” Sam Houston coach Brenda Welch-Nichols said. “It was more or less on us than on them.”
Chanice Smith scored on a drive and Jasmine Johnson sank a 3-pointer early in the second half as Sam Houston State closed the gap to two. Thomas then converted a three-point play after cutting inside for a layup, and the Bearkats led 39-38.
But the Bearkats were still plagued by turnovers, and Bigham turned a midcourt steal into a three-point play to give Oral Roberts the lead again near the 10-minute mark. The Eagles led 52-47 when Smith developed a cramp in her left calf and went to the bench with 8:05 remaining. Smith ranks 13th on the school’s career scoring list.
The Bearkats stayed close until Sarah Shelton blocked a Thomas shot near the 2-minute mark. Luper sank two free throws with 1:50 to go to put Oral Roberts up by four, and the Golden Eagles put it away from the free-throw line in the final 90 seconds.