KATY, Texas -- Twin sisters Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett led McNeese State to the Southland Conference tournament championship and its first NCAA tournament berth on Friday night.
As they celebrated the 71-50 victory over Central Arkansas, the pair reflected on a time not too long ago when it looked as though they might never suit up for the Cowgirls again. After both had successful freshman seasons in 2009, they decided to leave the team and soon began dealing with health problems that threatened their athletic careers.
A year away from the court got them healthy and happy, and they combined for 38 points in the championship game.
"It's amazing because it was our team that allowed us to come back and be a part of this," said Ashlyn, who was named the tournament's MVP. "Our first year we didn't believe in it and then we came back and we believed in it with everyone else. It's very special."
Added Caitlyn: "I think we just connected as a team great this year. We just kept that bond the entire season and that's just how we win."
Ashlyn scored 23 and Caitlyn added 15 with six assists as McNeese State (26-6) won its 12th straight game. The Cowgirls haven't lost since Central Arkansas beat them 74-73 in overtime on Jan. 29.
McNeese State was up by 11 points at halftime and opened the second half with a 14-3 spurt to extend its lead to 51-29 with 15 minutes remaining.
McNeese State coach Brooks Donald Williams gushed when talking about the twins' return to the team.
"It's just amazing how things work out," she said. "I think it was really hard on our program, but it was definitely the best thing for them and for our team. To go through all of that and to be where we are right now and to be a family and to really love and believe in each other, we'd go through all that again to have this moment."
Megan Herbert and Courtney Duever each scored 13 points for Central Arkansas (21-11), which is in its first season of postseason eligibility since making the transition from Division II.
"I'm not pleased with the way we played or even the effort that we gave, but I am pleased with the overall approach we had this season and what we accomplished," said Central Arkansas coach Matt Daniel.
McNeese State, which also won the regular-season conference title, did a good job of slowing down Herbert, the Southland player of the year. She had just four points after halftime and finished with six rebounds, well below her average of 10.9, before fouling out with about three minutes remaining.
"Today we all weren't there," Herbert said. "Nothing was there for us. We weren't ready. We didn't have the effort to win a championship today."
Williams wasn't happy with the job her team did on Herbert in the first two meetings this season and challenged her players to do better Friday.
"If we really wanted this win we were going to have to do this as a team," Williams said. "We are undersized and just did it with heart and effort and sheer determination. I'm very proud of our effort on Herbert."
Desiree Rogers added nine points for Central Arkansas, which snapped a six-game win streak.
McNeese State had an outstanding offensive performance and finished the night shooting almost 55 percent. The Cowgirls also dominated the boards, outrebounding Central Arkansas 34-24 thanks to 13 rebounds by Kendra Wells.
The Cowgirls have won 19 of their last 20 games, and the victory extends the school record for most wins in a season. Their only other trip to the conference tournament championship game came in 1983, when they lost to Louisiana-Monroe 94-81.
Central Arkansas reached the title game by defeating 2010 conference tournament champion Lamar in overtime. McNeese State beat Texas-San Antonio in the semifinals.
McNeese State was up by 10 points with four minutes remaining in the first half before Central Arkansas scored five straight points to cut the lead to 30-25. The Cowgirls answered with a 7-1 run, with Caitlyn Baggett scoring all the points, to take a 37-26 lead into halftime.