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SPORTS: Oral Roberts University

Golden Eagles Top McNeese, 79-66, Advance To SLC Title Game

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Oral Roberts University dethroned the defending conference champions and advanced to their first league title game since 2010 with a 79-66 victory over McNeese State University on Friday afternoon in the semifinals of the 2013 Southland Conference Tournament. With the win, the top-seeded Golden Eagles (17-12) advance to Saturday's Championship Game, where they will face either Lamar or Sam Houston State.

The victory snaps McNeese's eight-game SLC Tournament winning streak. The fourth-seeded Cowgirls (18-14) captured the 2011 and 2012 SLC Tournaments and had won their first two games of the 2013 edition.

"We knew that McNeese was the team to beat from the very beginning," said ORU Head Coach Misti Cussen. "We knew that it would be a real battle if we met them again, and today we were able to win it on the defensive end."

Five Golden Eagles scored in double-figures, led by seniors Jaci Bigham and Kevi Luper, who scored 17 points each. Christian Key hit several crucial shots down the stretch and scored 13 points, while Savanna Buck collected 11 points and Taylor Cooper had 10.

Buck led the Golden Eagles with nine rebounds, while Bigham grabbed seven boards and dished eight assists.

Caitlyn Baggett scored 20 points to lead McNeese, with twin sister Ashlyn Baggett adding 16 points. Cecilia Okoye led the low block effort for the Cowgirls, with 17 points and 12 rebounds.

ORU shot 48.3% from the floor and held McNeese to a 36.1% clip. The Cowgirls were just 9-for-34 from three-point range, including a 4-for-18 mark in the second half.

The Cowgirls came out hot, connecting from three-point range. A 9-1 run, capped by an Allison Baggett three-pointer, gave the lower seed a 15-8 lead with 14:03 left in the half.

But the Golden Eagles withstood the early challenge and used a half-court trapping zone to get back in the game. ORU surged back to take the lead at the 9:24 mark, as a Buck fast break basket made the score 20-19

The first half lead peaked with 4:26 left in the period. A cross court pass set up Luper for an open three-ball, and the senior drilled it, pumping the lead up to 29-21.

McNeese launched a mini-rally to close the half, cutting the gap down to two points, and ORU took a 35-32 into the halftime break.

Luper led the Golden Eagles with nine points at the break, while Ashlyn Baggett paced the Cowgirls with 14. McNeese shot just 30.0% in the half, while ORU shot at a 40.6% clip.

A six-point possession early in the second half was huge for the Golden Eagles. Luper scored a basket, then shot two technical free throws, then scored again on the ensuing inbounds play to give ORU a 45-37 lead with 15:48 left in the game.

The lead grew to a dozen points before ORU suffered a devastating blow. Luper was whistled for her fifth personal foul at the 9:54 mark and was disqualified with nearly a quarter of the game remaining. But Key entered the game in place of the three-time conference player of the year and sparked an effort that will go down as one of the most courageous in Golden Eagle basketball history.

Things grew tense as the lead slipped to four points, but Key was there to answer the bell. The Tulsa native hit two mammoth three-pointers as part of a 12-0 run that pushed the lead back to 69-53 with 5:05 left in the game, and ORU was again in control.

McNeese closed to deficit to nine points with 3:55 remaining, but Bigham righted the ship and got the lead back to double-digits with an acrobatic floating basket on the next possession. The defending champions would never again truly challenge the Golden Eagles, who booked their ticket to Saturday's final with a win in their first-ever SLC Tournament appearance.

"Christian was inserted into the game in Kevi's place and hit some huge shots down the stretch," said Cussen when asked about a postgame star. "If I had a game ball, I'd give it to our defense as a whole, but after that I'd give it to Christian."

The conference tournament victory is the first for the Golden Eagles since a 108-79 win over Western Illinois in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Summit League Tournament.

Saturday's Championship Game will tip off at 1 p.m. CT, with the winner earning the Southland's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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