Women's College Basketball

Stephen F. Austin tops Sam Houston State to earn 1st NCAA bid since 2006

By Dennis Silva II, Sports Editor
Posted 3/14/21

No. 1-seed Stephen F. Austin got a scare from No. 3 Sam Houston State in their Southland Conference Tournament women’s basketball championship game Sunday afternoon, but the Ladyjacks dominated defensively late to pull away for a 56-45 win in a classic “Battle of the Piney Woods” at the Merrell Center and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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Women's College Basketball

Stephen F. Austin tops Sam Houston State to earn 1st NCAA bid since 2006

Posted

No. 1-seed Stephen F. Austin got a scare from No. 3 Sam Houston State in their Southland Conference Tournament women’s basketball championship game Sunday afternoon, but the Ladyjacks dominated defensively late to pull away for a 56-45 win in a classic “Battle of the Piney Woods” at the Merrell Center and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Stephen F. Austin, which clinched the regular season conference title for the first time since 2014-15, is the first team since 2017 to win a regular season and conference championship. The Ladyjacks last received an NCAA Tournament bid in 2006.

“We don’t look at it as a monkey on our back,” fifth-year coach Mark Kellogg said. “We weren’t a part of that. For these guys, that’s not a monkey on their back. We’ve had some opportunities and let some slip away, and it happens to the best teams. This team deserves this, earned it, and I’m just glad they got to finish it off.”

“It’s very surreal,” added junior forward/center Aiyana Johnson, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player with a game-high 16 points, team-high eight rebounds and three blocks. “It’s a blessing we’ve all worked for. It’s a reward that all of our work has earned. This is our time.”

Sam Houston (15-8) led 30-28 with 7:46 left in the third quarter before Stephen F. Austin (23-2) went on a 17-4 run to lead 45-34 with 6:09 left in the fourth.

The Bearkats countered with a 9-2 run to pull within 47-43 with 1:45 left, but the Ladyjacks held on for the win behind a huge 3-pointer from the left corner by sophomore guard Zya Nugent and a lay-in off the glass from the left side by Johnson.

Stephen F. Austin, which entered the game the better team in 11 of 13 major statistical categories, had standout performances from Johnson, Nugent (13 points, six rebounds, two assists) and freshman forward Avery Brittingham (eight points, four steals, three rebounds).

“We wanted to hang our hat on the defensive end,” Kellogg said. “We just didn’t know what we’d have going offensively. We thought they’d try to take away some perimeter shots, but we really wanted to win the paint.”

The Ladyjacks held the Bearkats to 30.2 percent shooting and won the interior edge with 38 points in the paint to the Bearkats’ 16.

“We played hard, but we didn’t execute like we usually do,” Sam Houston coach Ravon Justice said. “We turned over the ball in crucial moments. That stretch, we were right there and got five stops and had the opportunity to go up when it was 30-30. We turned the basketball over. That’s something that will haunt me tonight.

“At the end of the day, I thought our kids fought hard. They never hung their heads. I’m very proud of this group. I do think we have a championship program and we’ll be back.”

Stephen F. Austin scored 21 points off 19 Sam Houston turnovers. The Bearkats won the rebounding battle, 38-30, and stayed in the game with 11 second-chance points off 20 offensive rebounds but never could produce buckets consistently.

Junior forward Amber Leggett led Sam Houston with 14 points. Senior guard Faith Cook added 11. Junior forward Madelyn Batista added a game-high 10 rebounds.

“I feel everybody counted us out and now is our time to shine in the NCAA Tournament,” Nugent said. “You always watch everybody else in the NCAA Tournament and you always wish you can be there. Now it’s just … we’re here. We’ve just got to go and compete. I don’t care who we play. We just need to go out and win. We don’t want to just be participants. We want to win.”

Stephen F. Austin will find out Monday who it will play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

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