For the first time in the past three seasons, the Northwestern State women’s basketball team left Katy, Texas, unsure of whether it had another game left to play together.
That answer came Monday night when the Lady Demons accepted a bid to the Women’s Basketball Invitational, and the reward comes Wednesday afternoon at 5 p.m. when NSU travels south on Interstate 49 to face state rival UL Lafayette in the tournament opener.
“We talked to them a little bit (Tuesday) about how, a lot of times when you lose your last game, you’re done,” fourth-year co-head coach Brooke Stoehr said. “You don’t get a second chance. Now we get a chance to go compete for a championship. It’s survive and advance like any other postseason. Hopefully, we’ll take advantage of that.”
Northwestern State (19-11) will make its third straight national postseason appearance – a program first – against the Ragin’ Cajuns (21-10), who finished third in the Sun Belt Conference, matching NSU’s Southland Conference finish.
The similarities between the programs don’t end there.
Both Brooke and Scott Stoehr and their UL Lafayette counterpart Garry Brodhead are in their fourth seasons at their respective institutions and have restored shine to their programs.
The Cajuns posted their second straight 20-win season under Brodhead in 2015-16 while the Lady Demons aim for their second 20-win season in the past three campaigns of the Stoehr era.
Both teams have tasted postseason play recently with NSU reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2015 and UL Lafayette capturing the 2015 WBI championship.
“He’s done a really, really good job,” Stoehr said. “They won 21 games this year. They won the WBI last year. He’s been able to turn it around. He’s a very defensive-minded coach. They’re going to pressure you and play 94 feet, try to turn you over and create some offensive opportunities from their defense.”
One of Stoehr’s mantras has been understand the value of possession and few teams rank higher in turnover margin than the Cajuns, whose plus-5.52 value stands 11th nationally.
That defense has helped UL Lafayette limit its opponents to an average of 56.6 points per game and outscore its foes by an average of 6.3 points per game.
“We’ve got to do a great job of protecting the basketball and getting good shots every time down the court,” Stoehr said. “We’ve got to be able to score the basketball. If we can, we can stay in the game with them. We can’t give up easy possessions where we don’t get a shot and it ends up in a live-ball turnover that leads to points for them.”
The Lady Demons’ veteran backcourt of seniors Keisha Lee and Janelle Perez and junior guard Beatrice Attura provide Stoehr with a safety net of sorts against the Cajuns’ pressure defense.
Perez ranks 19th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.40) while NSU as a whole has a nearly even assist-to-turnover mark (0.99), which ranks 69th in the country.
The backcourt trio also will become the first Lady Demons to play in three national postseason tournaments in their careers, collecting plenty of experience along the way.
Perez and Attura led the way in a 78-71 Southland Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Sam Houston State on Saturday, dropping 30 and 19 points, respectively.
Perez scored 20 of her game-high 30 in a scintillating fourth-quarter performance that helped NSU nearly overcome a 14-point deficit with less than eight minutes to play.
“That was pretty special,” Stoehr said. “You’re in the flow of the game, and I knew she was scoring, but more importantly, our team was scoring. We weren’t shooting the ball very well, and we felt like we had an advantage with her putting the ball on the floor. She knocked down some shots, but I didn’t realize it until after the game that she had 20 in the fourth quarter.
“She would tell you she would give up every one of those points if we could have gotten a win.”
Fortunately for Perez and NSU, there is another chance to get another victory.
“It’s special for these kids to get to play another game,” Stoehr said. “There’s a lot to be said for being in postseason play. We’re thankful and appreciative for the opportunity to play again.”
The game will air on the Demon Sports Network