KATY, Texas — The first half lead peaked with 4:26 left in the period. A cross court pass set up Luper for an open three-ball, and the senior drilled it, pumping the lead up to 29-21.
McNeese launched a mini-rally to close the half, cutting the gap down to two points, and ORU took a 35-32 into the halftime break.
Luper led the Golden Eagles with nine points at the break, while Ashlyn Baggett paced the Cowgirls with 14. McNeese shot just 30.0% in the half, while ORU shot at a 40.6% clip.
A six-point possession early in the second half was huge for the Golden Eagles. Luper scored a basket, then shot two technical free throws, then scored again on the ensuing inbounds play to give ORU a 45-37 lead with 15:48 left in the game.
The lead grew to a dozen points before ORU suffered a devastating blow. Luper was whistled for her fifth personal foul at the 9:54 mark and was disqualified with nearly a quarter of the game remaining. But Key entered the game in place of the three-time conference player of the year and sparked an effort that will go down as one of the most courageous in Golden Eagle basketball history.
Things grew tense as the lead slipped to four points, but Key was there to answer the bell. The Tulsa native hit two mammoth three-pointers as part of a 12-0 run that pushed the lead back to 69-53 with 5:05 left in the game, and ORU was again in control.
McNeese closed to deficit to nine points with 3:55 remaining, but Bigham righted the ship and got the lead back to double-digits with an acrobatic floating basket on the next possession. The defending champions would never again truly challenge the Golden Eagles, who booked their ticket to Saturday’s final with a win in their first-ever SLC Tournament appearance.