KATY, Texas -- The Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks, some with their arms folded, some holding back tears, watched McNeese State kick colored balloons on the floor and celebrate Friday night.
Caitlyn Baggett scored 21 points, including the winning free throws with 5.6 seconds left, and McNeese State won the Southland Conference tournament with a 60-56 win over Stephen F. Austin in the championship game.
Brittney Matthew and Annette Davis scored 12 points apiece and Ashlee Mells and Porsha Roberts each had 11 for Stephen F. Austin, which was in the tournament championship game for the first time since 2007.
The Ladyjacks slipped to 15-3 in the championship match. They have only three seniors on their current roster, and coach Brandon Schneider says that watching McNeese celebrate provides perfect incentive this offseason.
"I promise you, when you're a returning player, and you're watching balloons drop, and they're not for you," Schneider said, "that's a highly motivating factor."
Caitlyn's twin sister Ashlyn Baggett had 14 points and five assists, and Kendra Wells grabbed 12 rebounds, including the offensive board that may have saved the season for McNeese State (26-7).
Caitlyn Baggett, an 80 percent free throw shooter, missed a pair with 17 seconds left and the score tied at 56. The second miss ricocheted toward the corner, and Wells chased it down.
"I was so grateful that Kitty (Wells) got that rebound," Caitlyn Baggett said. "I was extremely happy."
Wells passed back to Baggett, who drove into the lane again and drew another foul with 5.6 seconds to go. She made both attempts this time, pumping her fist and screaming after the second one swished through the hoop.
The Ladyjacks (23-9) turned it over on their last frantic possession, and Baggett tacked on two more free throws at the end.
Stephen F. Austin outrebounded McNeese 36-33. But the season came down to one rebound that the Ladyjacks couldn't get.
"Free throw rebounding was the difference in the last minute," Schneider said. "Our players will tell you, we told them exactly, that it could come down to that kind of detail."
The Cowgirls mobbed each other on their side of the court, as the balloons showered down from the rafters. McNeese will march into the NCAA tournament on a nine-game winning streak.
The Ladyjacks, meanwhile, will have to sit out the tournament for the sixth straight year.
"It hurts to lose," said Tammera Marion, one of the three seniors. "We were playing really hard."
Stephen F. Austin went 10 minutes without a field goal in the first half, and was lucky to trail only 29-24. The Ladyjacks found their touch in the second half, and used an 11-5 spurt to take a 40-36 lead.
"We were never really out of it," Marion said. "They would make their run, and we would just calm ourselves down, and say we're still in this. It's just a tough loss."
McNeese State turned to full-court pressure to regain control, and Ashlyn Baggett's layup tied it at 41. Caitlyn Baggett swished another 3 to give the Cowgirls the lead again.
McNeese stretched the lead to six before Matthew hit an off-balance bank shot. Stephen F. Austin kept alive its next possession with two offensive rebounds, and Annette Davis sank a free throw with 3:12 remaining to pull the Ladyjacks within three.
Marion swished a 3 to tie it with 1:27 remaining, and neither team could score on their next possessions before Caitlyn Baggett drew the first of two fouls that put her on the line, where she eventually won the game.
McNeese State started the game 1 for 6 from the floor and committed four turnovers in the first 5 minutes. The Cowgirls averaged only 14 turnovers per game during the regular season.
After the solid start, Stephen F. Austin missed 11 consecutive shots and went 10 minutes without a field goal. Mells ended the drought with a driving layup with 3:56 left before halftime.