KATY, Texas – A loss in the Southland Conference championship marked significant progress for Sam Houston State.
Kevi Luper scored 26 points, and Oral Roberts secured its first NCAA tournament berth since 2008 with a 72-66 win over the Bearkats 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.
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. It was still a big step for a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1996 before going 17-14 last year.
Thomas was one of four seniors who played her last game for the Bearkats on Saturday.
"I've come a long way, our seniors have come a long way, from a program that struggled to even have a winning season to now," said Thomas. "We just fight hard, play together, and it just hurts that we don't have the opportunity of cutting down some more nets."
Brenda Welch-Nichols became Sam Houston's coach in 2006. The Bearkats made their first-ever postseason appearance in a national tournament in last year's WBI, and Welch-Nichols was named the league's top coach after this season.
"When they hired myself and (assistant) coach (Jamene) Caldwell seven years ago, we knew that we were going to just have to roll up our sleeves and work," Welch-Nichols said. "Early on, we knew we weren't going to win a lot of ballgames. We had kids that worked for us, that fought for us."
"We don't get the best kids in the country," she added, "but the kids we get I would never, never give back."
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," 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.
Smith returned and then left the game again a few minutes later. She was back for the final 3 minutes, but Welch-Nichols said her injury was a factor in the outcome.
"That pretty much hurt us," Welch-Nichols said. "That took her out of her game at the end."
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.
Oral Roberts and first-year coach Misti Cussen finished their first season in the Southland with the school's sixth conference tournament championship.
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."