Four years ago Savannah Buck, Jaci Bigham, and Kevi Luper arrived on the campus of Oral Roberts University as freshmen. This class of players fully expected to reach the NCAA tournament each of the next four years, but things wouldn’t go as planned. In 2009 they lost an overtime heartbreaker to South Dakota State University. In 2010 Jaci Bigham suffered a season-ending knee injury. In 2011 they were eliminated in the semifinal round of the conference tournament. Needless to say this group had unfinished business.
Knowing that the final curtain call was upon them would be enough stress and pressure for these three seniors, but in April, Head Coach Jerry Finkbeiner left the program to take the job at Utah State. Couple that with the move to a brand new conference made this farewell tour more of a season of new beginnings.
Long time assistant coach Misti Cussen was promoted to head coach shortly after Finkbeiner’s departure and had to deal with the elevated pressures of the new position as well as finding the right balance of what has worked and what needs to change for this team to be successful. “There’s been a lot of growing pains this year. It was kind of one of those things of living with the tension,” said Cussen. This season would clearly be a challenge of learning and leading on the fly, as they got ready for competition. The one thing they knew was that staying together would be vital if they were going to be at their best.
After a year of ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, this team found themselves as the number one seed set to play for the championship of a relatively unfamiliar conference. The bond that this team has formed, thru the toughest times over the years, carried them thru this season.
Today they faced a team in Sam Houston State that was also new to the conference and was looking to claim the title for their group of seniors that had helped build their program from the basement to the ceiling. From the moment this game started, it had special written all over it.
With five minutes left Sam Houston State took a one-point lead that wouldn’t last as Freshman Taylor Cooper answered with a three-point basket on the very next ORU possession. With 2:30 left Sam Houston scored to tie the game but shortly after Senior Savannah Buck scored in the lane to make it 61-59 ORU. Every run that the Lady Bearcats threw at this group was answered with one of their own.
Junior Sarah Shelton had been somewhat quiet thru the first three quarters and was asked to take more chances at blocking shots rather than just contesting them with her hands straight up. “I got onto Sarah (Shelton) late in the game because she was playing wall-defense, when she is an incredible leaper.” Cussen said.
With two minutes on the clock Sam Houston’s Sequeena Thomas drove the lane and took a shot from about 15 feet out that was blocked by Shelton and recovered by Luper. It was the turning point of the championship game.
There are plays and then there are winning plays, and on the biggest stage this group of girls made the winning plays needed to be called champions.
When the clock ran out and the confetti began to fall, it was Oral Roberts University that stood above the rest. After all of the hardships, trials, and defeats this group had finally done it.
“It has been a very tough journey here. We have learned a lot of lessons, and we have learned them the hard way, but it made our team who we are today, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Luper said.
Kevi Luper was named the conference tournament MVP with 26 points in the title game. Jaci Bigham joined her on the All-Conference Tournament team.
The Golden Eagles are now headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. The team will find out who and where they play during the NCAA Division I Women’s Selection Show, which can be seen live on ESPN Monday at 6 pm CT.
Coach Cussen ended her time with the media with this statement, “They stayed faithful, and today was the culmination of their faithfulness.”