Louisiana, James Madison win Sun Belt men’s, women’s basketball tournaments

Austin Lloyd, Staff Writer

The champions of both Sun Belt Conference (SBC) basketball tournaments were crowned on Monday at the Pensacola Bay Center, with the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns taking the men’s title and the James Madison Dukes taking the women’s.

The men’s championship game was the one that many in the area had been keeping their eyes on, as it involved the thrilling underdog story of Mobile’s own South Alabama Jaguars.

Unlike the other three teams competing for an SBC title, the Jaguars did not enter the bracket as a top-two squad. Rather, they were the eighth seed, needing to rely on colossal upsets over higher-ranked names such as Southern Mississippi and James Madison to make it to the big game.

Combining that kind of journey with the fact that South Alabama is closer to the Northwest Florida region than any other Sun Belt team made the Jaguars all the more interesting of a bunch for locals to follow. However, the dream run fell just short when Louisiana escaped with the 71-66 victory.

The Ragin’ Cajuns, like multiple other SBC contenders, learned relatively soon into their meeting with the Jaguars that they were not to be overlooked. This was highlighted by South Alabama holding a 37-33 halftime lead. Such a lead was not strong enough to put the game away, though.

In the second half, Louisiana outscored USA by nine to take a narrow lead of its own. The turnaround was led by several impact players. Four scored 12 points or more, including junior forward Jordan Brown and sophomore guard Themus Fulks.

With 13 points and 16 rebounds, Brown was the only player on either team to finish the game with a double-double. Meanwhile, Fulks led the Ragin’ Cajuns in both points (23) and assists (3).

After the game, Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin spoke on its competitiveness, and how well his guys were prepared for whatever it would throw their way.

“What a basketball game, it’s what conference tournaments are all about,” Marlin said. “I told the guys with about seven minutes to go ‘did you expect anything different?’ You could tell it was going to come down to a one-or-two-possession game.”

On the women’s side of things, top-seeded James Madison had clear control of the matchup early on, holding a 10-point lead on second-seeded Texas State at halftime. The game wasn’t truly put out of reach until the third quarter, with the Dukes outscoring the Bobcats 22-9 to enter the fourth with a 60-37 advantage.

A huge difference maker was JMU’s ability to shoot from deep range with consistency, finishing the game with a 75% success rate beyond the arc. A large amount of thanks for both the team’s margin of victory and three-point percentage goes to junior guard Peyton McDaniel.

McDaniel led the team in points (30) and was second in rebounds (9), easily establishing herself as one of the top players to watch in multiple ways. However, her biggest impact was her combination of accuracy and range.

She shot 10-11 from the field and an astonishing 7-7 from the three-point line. But, while she perhaps finished with the best stat line, fellow guard Kiki Jefferson did not let her take all the glory. Jefferson scored 22 on 8-13 (4-5 from three), leaving her own sizable mark on the box score. The duo’s offensive showing paved the way to their dominating 81-51 win.

Dukes head coach Sean O’Regan voiced how proud he was of his players, stating this kind of season is one that has been brewing all along, and that something as grand as an SBC title had always been in their sights.

“I’m so happy for these two [McDaniel and Jefferson] and our team,” O’Regan said. “We were building towards that the whole year, since the very beginning.”

As a reward for their wins, the schools will receive automatic bids to their respective NCAA tournaments. Both their placements in the brackets and their next opponents are yet to be determined.