Oral Roberts women beat Sam Houston State 72-66 for Southland championship, NCAA tourney bid

Kevi Luper scored 26 points and Oral Roberts secured its first NCAA tournament berth in five years 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.

Luper was named the tournament's most valuable player.

Sequeena Thomas scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Bearkats (18-14), who shared the regular-season conference title with Oral Roberts. The teams split their regular-season meetings, and the championship game was close all the way, with the lead changing hands 10 times.

Luper sank a 3-pointer and turned a steal into a fast-break layup to give Oral Roberts the early lead. Luper, the league's second-leading scorer in the regular season (18.8 points per game), scored 12 of Oral Roberts' first 16 points.

The Bearkats struggled to solve Oral Roberts' trapping defense early, giving away six turnovers in the opening 13 minutes. After another errant pass sailed out of bounds, Taylor Cooper hit a running one-hander with 6:31 left in the half for a 22-15 Eagles lead.

Sam Houston State trailed 30-25 at the break after shooting 33 percent in the first half and committing 10 turnovers. The 6-foot Thomas, Sam Houston State's career leader in rebounds and blocked shots, kept the Bearkats close with 12 points and six rebounds in the half.

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 twisted her left ankle and went to the bench with 8:05 remaining. Smith ranks 13th on the school's career scoring list.

Britni Martin, Sam Houston's career leader in 3-pointers, sank her second 3 of the game with 5:34 left to trim the deficit to one. Smith returned and scored inside to give the Bearkats a brief lead. Cooper sank a 3-pointer from the corner for a 57-55 Oral Roberts lead. Smith came out to stretch her ankle, then returned for the final 3 minutes and hit a baseline jumper to tie it again.

Savanna Buck scored inside for Oral Roberts, and 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 Smith threw a pass out of bounds. The Golden Eagles put it away from the free-throw line in the final 90 seconds.

The Bearkats were seeking their first NCAA tournament berth. Sam Houston State, the league's top-rebounding team in the regular season (42.3 per game), had a 35-28 rebounding edge Saturday.