Ungraceful Swan Song: Tech bows out of WNIT

CIRCLE OF TRUST: After a breakout season, Louisiana Tech faltered at home in the first round of the WNIT Thursday night.

By TEDDY ALLEN, Journal Sports

RUSTON — The way Thursday night’s opening round game of the 2022 WNIT ended — a 63-52 loss to visiting Houston — wasn’t what Louisiana Tech wanted, although a quick study of the postgame box score might have suggested otherwise.

The Lady Techsters, whose late regular-season run earned them the championship of Conference USA’s West Division, turned the ball over 17 times, gave up 14 offensive rebounds and collected only four, got just two second-chance points compared to the Cougars’ 18, and gave up 12 fast break points; Tech scored none.

“Tomorrow,” Lady Techsters head coach Brooke Stoehr said, “is the worst day of the year” — and then she stopped, abruptly, just as her team’s season had only a few moments before, and began processing the unavoidable reality of an ending.

“I didn’t want to close it out (tonight) for the last time,” she said after a brief moment. “Not with this group. Man, they’ve been special. I’ve been around a lot of teams and some big wins and have a lot of great memories, but I’ve enjoyed this group more than any I’ve been around.”

The Lady Techsters lost a probable starter in preseason and played through the winter with two freshman starters and mostly new faces. And yet the team rallied to win eight of its final 10 regular season games and the West, then two more games in postseason before falling in the CUSA Tournament finals.

But unfortunately for Tech, that’s not the team that showed up for the WNIT in Thomas Assembly Center to play Houston, 16-15 coming in and 7-9 finishers in the American Athletic Conference. Instead, Tech played like the other team it also was, the one that started the conference season 0-4, the one that lost games to Rice when the Owls were 0-5 in the league, the one that lost to last-place UTSA, the one that lost two close back-to-back games to Southern Mississippi.

It didn’t play like the team that went 12-2 at home.

“We didn’t have our best tonight,” said Stoehr, whose team finished 21-11 and in the WNIT for the first time since 2018. “It’s hard to put into words.”

Houston built its biggest advantage of the first half to nine, a spread cut by a Salma Bates drive and lay-up to make it 35-28 at the break. The Cougars built the lead by scoring 10 second-chance points to Tech’s 0, by grabbing eight offensive rebounds to Tech’s two, and by taking advantage of 11 Tech turnovers.

In that tell-tale first half, Tech shot 50 percent from the field, kept the visitors scoreless from three (0-8), and played good defense in half court – but gave up 10 fast break points and, because of the turnovers and offensive boards allowed, essentially handed the Cougars half their points.

“I wanted so badly for us to get on a little run,” Stoehr said of the second half. And, for anyone who could remember Tech’s fourth-quarter comeback against Middle Tennessee State in the CUSA Tournament semis, such a comeback seemed possible.

Except the run never came. The closest thing to a rally Tech could create, besides Bates’ layup in the final second of the first half, was her three-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to cut Houston’s lead to six, 49-43.

It was as close as Tech would get. The big run, the big play, the big Houston mistake — not a one ever came. The Cougars kept the lead between nine and 11 much of the fourth quarter and twice led by 13.

Keiunna Walker led Tech in scoring with 18. Anna Larr Roberson, who played only 25 minutes because of foul trouble, had 11 and Bates had 10.

Houston, making its fourth straight appearance in the WNIT, has now won five of its last seven games and advances. Star guard Laila Blair scored 12, just below her average, but Bria Patterson with 18 and Tiara Young with 17 each doubled their average points-per-game output.

And so the Lady Techsters will wake up Friday to the “worst day of the year,” but so will every other team that doesn’t win its last game. What Stoehr’s young team can take from their unlucky St.-Patrick’s-Day-night experience, she said, is “fuel and motivation into the offseason.”

“I don’t want them to look at tonight and think, ‘This is our season,’” Stoehr said.

And it wasn’t. A loss can’t erase 21 wins, a division title and a league tournament runner-up finish. The eve of “the worst day of the year” might have seen the play of a team that showed up a few other times during the season, a young team that was one player, maybe even just one season, short of something special.

Next winter will tell.

Photo by SADIE PATTON, Louisiana Tech