Troy women advance to play Mississippi State in NCAA tourney

Scott Watkins

Staff Writer

The Troy Trojan women’s basketball team is the Sun Belt Champion for the second consecutive year and will be making a return trip to the big dance after taking down Louisiana 78-64.

Troy will now advance to play Mississippi State in round 1 of the NCAA tournament, and will play the Bulldogs in  Starkville on Friday.

Troy’s championship journey in New Orleans opened with a record-breaking 105-72 win over Arkansas State in which the Trojans grabbed a Sun Belt-record 86 rebounds. Senior All-Sun Belt first team selection Caitlyn Ramirez led the way with 25 points and 22 rebounds.

Troy then got its revenge over Texas-Arlington with a dominant 88-59 victory to advance to the championship game. Guards Jayla Chills and Claresa Banks combined for 41 points in a game that was never in doubt.

“I’m extremely proud of how this team has played,” Head Coach Chanda Rigby said. “To be playing for a conference championship along with our men’s team is such an honor, and I am so proud.”

The title game was a defensive battle from the start. It took just over three minutes for Troy to get on the board before Banks knocked down a free throw. A moment later, Banks hit a three to give the Trojans their first lead of the game.

After falling behind again 12-9 near the end of the quarter, Banks hit another three to tie the game. The two teams then traded free throws, and Troy entered the second quarter with a 14-13 lead. Banks had nine points in the quarter and finished with 14 for the game.

Troy jumped out of the gate in the second with a 6-0 run to extend its lead to 20-13. Ramirez found herself in foul trouble early and had to be benched for 13 minutes in the first half, including the entire second quarter.

Senior forward Kristen Emerson stepped up in Ramirez’s absence, registering two points and four rebounds in six minutes during the second quarter.

The Trojans maintained their lead throughout the quarter, pushing it to as high as 10, while holding the Ragin’ Cajuns to 21 percent shooting from the field and went into the half with a 36-30 lead.

Troy’s lead hovered around eight points in the third quarter until Louisiana used nine free throws in the last 3:22 of the quarter to cut the Trojans’ lead to 53-49. Guard Jaylyn Gordon, who played all 40 minutes for the Ragin’ Cajuns, accounted for six of those free throws.

Back-to-back jumpers from Cajun guard Troi Swain early in the fourth quarter brought Louisiana within three. Troy responded with a pair of threes from Amanda Mendoza and Kayla Robinson.

Ramirez played a major role late in the game. Up seven with 1:42 remaining, Ramirez saved a pass from going out of bounds and dropped it into the hands of a wide open Emerson under the basket for an easy two points that served as the icing on the cake.

The Trojans put the game on ice in the final minute with six made free throws between Chills and Ta’Kierra Gibbs. The Cajuns’ second chance points were limited in the quarter with Troy dominating the glass 20 rebounds to seven.

“I thought the game, at the beginning, went exactly the way UL-Lafayette would have wanted it to go,” Rigby said. “They out-rebounded us to start and that made me panic a little bit. We managed to get the lead and keep the lead.

“Honestly, it was one of those games that you never felt like you had the lead. That UL-Lafayette team has a lot of fight and a lot of heart. Depth is a strength of ours and it came through today.”

Troy led in the game for 33:38, but only led by double digits for 1:33. The Trojans responded to every Louisiana rally with its own rebuttal, utilizing its depth to counter the Ragin’ Cajuns on offense. All 12 Trojans scored in the game and 10 players logged at least 10 minutes of action.

The Trojans enter the tournament as a 15-seed and will face two-seed Mississippi State on Friday at 1:30 p.m. CT in Starkville, Mississippi.

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