Western Kentucky adjusts, uses late run to beat Cajuns

No. 7 seed Louisiana-Lafayette started fast Wednesday night, with guard Sylvana Okde finding — and creating — openings in Western Kentucky’s perimeter defense.

Then Chasity Gooch and the No. 2 seed Lady Hilltoppers adjusted, UL-Lafayette became less aggressive in its pursuit to the rim, and Okde found scoring a more difficult task, ending the Ragin’ Cajuns’ hopes for an upset in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference women’s basketball tournament.

Gooch scored 15 of her 21 points in the second half, including a score in the post against much-smaller defender that broke a tie game with 1:24 left, sealing Western Kentucky’s 67-61 victory at the Lakefront Arena.

On the play, Gooch, penetrating to her right, took advantage of a defensive switch, scoring over Kia Wilridge, seven inches shorter than her. Gooch, listed at six feet, was also fouled and made the free throw. Gooch had 14 rebounds, including seven offensive rebounds.

“I thought our game plan worked good very good,” UL-Lafayette coach Garry Brodhead said, setting up his own punchline.

“I always say, we fell a little short, and we are a little short.”

Western Kentucky advances to play the winner of Wednesday’s late quarterfinal between Arkansas-Little Rock and Troy.

After leading by as much as 10 points late in the first half, UL-Lafayette was outscored 7-1 in the final two minutes.

The ending ruined one of Okde’s best games of the season. The sophomore finished with 21 points, her second-best scoring output of the season. Her first-half performance was even more impressive with 15 points, all but one of her seven attempts from behind the 3-point line.

Her 3-pointer with 2:37 left in the first half increased UL-Lafayette’s lead to 33-23, sparking a quick start. But Western Kentucky scored the final nine points of halftime, all on 3-pointers, and started the second half with a greater defensive intensity.

Okde went 2-for-6 from the field during the second half, including 2-for-5 on 3-pointers.

“We all felt as a team we were ready to take (a win) from them,” Okde said. “We had a couple of unforced turnovers, and that really hurt us. ... I think out defensive rebounding hurt us. We weren’t boxing out enough. They were just going over us, making layups.”

“We finally decided to guard, get our hands up,” said Western Kentucky guard Kendall Noble, who scored eight points and helped to defend Okde on the perimeter. “We made their shots tough, and we finally started getting rebounds and going back on the other end (and scoring).”

Brodhead blamed himself for the second-half change in momentum, saying he should have continued the first-half’s attacking strategy.

Chanell Lockhart came off the bench for Western Kentucky (22-8) to score 10 points.

Wilridge (12 points) was the Cajun’s only other double-digit scorer.

UL-Lafayette’s season ends at 14-16, a journey that included season-ending losses to guard Keke Veal and Jasmin Mills, the team’s best post player. The Rajun’ Cajuns have no seniors.

“I think we’re pointed in the right direction,” he said.