KATY, Texas -
Oral Roberts University won their first-ever Southland Conference Tournament Championship on Saturday afternoon with a hard-fought 72-66 victory over Sam Houston State. The conference title guarantees ORU an automatic berth into the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship.
The conference tournament title is the sixth in ORU program history and the first for the Golden Eagles (18-12) since winning the Summit League crown in 2008.
Kevi Luper was named Tournament MVP after leading ORU with 26 points, while Jaci Bigham added 17 points and Savanna Buck chipped in 10. The senior trio, already one of the most decorated in ORU history, will be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
"You really couldn't have scripted it any better," said Buck after the win. "Winning this along with Jaci and Kevi and for Coach Cussen is truly a blessing."
Sequeena Thomas led the Bearkats (18-14) with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
Luper, Bigham and Thomas joined Sam Houston's Angela Beadle and McNeese State's Caitlyn Baggett on the Southland Conference All-Tournament Team.
"We've said a tough journey here, and we've learned a lot of lessons along the way," Luper said of her fellow seniors. "But it made our team who we are today, and I wouldn't change a thing."
Freshman Taylor Cooper added 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds for the Golden Eagles, while Sarah Shelton had eight points.
ORU scored the first five points of the game, taking a 5-0 lead on Luper's first attempt of the afternoon. But the Bearkats clawed back, taking a 10-9 lead on a Thomas jumper at the 15:00 mark.
The Golden Eagles came back to retake the lead two possessions later on another Luper three-pointer, and they built an eight-point lead at the 4:18 mark, as Shelton scored off of a nifty Bigham feed. The basket gave ORU a 26-18 edge, their largest of the half.
The lead was 30-25 for ORU at the halftime whistle. Luper had 14 points to lead all scorers, while Thomas had 12 points and six boards to pace Sam Houston.
ORU led by as many as six points in the second half before the Bearkats made a charge. A stick back by Beadle with 11:15 left in the game gave SHSU a 45-41 lead, their largest of the game.
Down by four, the Golden Eagles mounted a 7-0 run. The spurt was highlighted by a physical three-point play from Bigham, who took a spill but managed to give ORU a 48-45 lead with 8:05 left.
SHSU had another run in them. The Bearkats scored six straight points, capped by a Chanice Smith basket, to retake the lead, at 55-54, with 5:07 on the clock.
Oral Roberts would never trail again. Cooper answered with a three-pointer on ORU's next possession, restoring the Golden Eagle lead. SHSU tied the game on two more occasions, but ORU took the lead for good on a Buck jumper with 2:27 remaining that made the score 61-59.
Sam Houston did not hit a field goal in the game's final 2:57, missing three shots and committing two turnovers in the game's closing stretch. ORU, on the other hand, was able to salt the game away at the free throw line, where they hit 11 of 12 attempts over the game's final two minutes.
The free throw line proved to be the difference for the Golden Eagles, who hit 28-of-33 (84.8%) shots from the charity stripe. Sam Houston hit eight fewer free throws and lost by six points.
Overall, the game featured five ties and ten lead changes. Neither squad led by more than nine points.
ORU will learn their next opponent on Monday night, as the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Selection show will reveal the field of 64 teams. ESPN will televise the show live beginning at 6 pm CT.