DENTON, Texas -- High seeds, beware. Patrice Holmes and Middle Tennessee are headed back to the NCAA Tournament, ready to pull off another upset like they did last March.
With Holmes scoring 14 points and Chrissy Givens tying her career high with 18, the Lady Raiders beat Louisiana-Lafayette 67-52 on Tuesday in the Sun Belt tournament championship game to earn their second straight automatic bid into the NCAA field.
Middle Tennessee became just the third No. 13 seed to win a first-round game when it beat North Carolina last year. The Lady Raiders (23-8) return three starters from that squad -- and the other two will be on the bench as graduate assistants.
"We know we have the people to win a game in the NCAA Tournament," said Holmes, voted the tournament's most outstanding player for a third straight year.
While Middle Tennessee was favored to win this title, coach Stephany Smith admitted to being more relieved than excited because of what a rocky season it's been. Two likely starters and a projected key reserve all left the team before Thanksgiving, forcing coaches to ask Ciara Gray to rejoin the club after she'd already become a student coach because of repeated injuries.
"It's been a long, uphill climb to get to the point where we are," Smith said.
Gray reinjured her right knee Monday and was thought to be done for the year. Aggressive treatment and good fortune resulted in her playing 30 minutes and scoring 11 points.
"I wasn't expecting to play as long or as well as I did," she said.
Krystle Horton added 12 points and seven rebounds, and Tia Stovall scored 10. Holmes had six field goals, giving her a tournament record of 30; two years ago, she set the tournament scoring record with 74 points.
Bernette Tolston led Louisiana Lafayette (22-9) with 14 points, and Tiffany Washington had 10 points and eight rebounds. The Ragin' Cajuns got only eight points and four rebounds from Anna Petrakova, who usually leads them in both categories.
Middle Tennessee forced her out of position and did a nice job limiting point guard Ashley Blanche, who was also dealing with the pain of two stress fractures in her right foot made more painful by this being her third game in four days.
The Lady Raiders forced turnovers on five straight possessions midway through the second half, helping them go ahead by at least 10 the rest of the game. The Cajuns had more turnovers (12) than baskets (seven) in the first half and finished with 17 turnovers. Lafayette shot just 38.5 percent, barely up from its season low of 30.4 percent set in the previous meeting with Middle Tennessee this season.
"They definitely have a team with the defensive intensity to beat a higher-seeded team," Cajuns coach J. Kelley Hall said. "Whoever gets them better watch out."
The season was still a big success for Louisiana-Lafayette, as the Cajuns tied the school record for wins set in 1983-84 and reached the conference tournament final for the first time. They had been 0-12 in Sun Belt tournament games until winning two to reach this game, putting them as close as they've been to making the NCAA Tournament in their 34-year history.
Hall said he's not expecting a WNIT bid because of his program's low RPI rating.
Stovall and Givens were named to the all-tournament team, as was Petrakova.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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