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Women’s Basketball: ‘I knew we had potential’

Cajuns leave for tournament with high hopes

UL’s Ragin’ Cajun women’s basketball team has made road trips before, armed with the requisite pillows and iPods to help the time pass more agreeably.

They’ve even played at the University of Texas before, getting to know the UT court and rims in a season-opening tournament there in November.

But Thursday’s bus ride was unlike any previously taken by the school’s women’s basketball program – a historic first appearance in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

"When I came here, getting the chance to play in the NCAA tournament was definitely one of my goals," sophomore guard Whitney Dunlap said as the Cajuns loaded their gear on the team bus outside Earl K. Long Gym after a morning practice. "I knew we had the potential.

"I’ve heard from so many people back home (Baton Rouge), congratulating me and saying they hope we do well."

The Cajuns will meet Marquette at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, boasting a 25-8 record and newfound respect.

"One of the big reasons I came here was to be a part of history," said senior forward Yolanda Jones, a junior college national champion who was named All-Sun Belt Conference both years at UL. "I’m proud to do something just to help, to be part of what’s going on."

A program on the rise also appealed to center Kina Miller, who, like Jones, joined the Cajuns from junior college.

"Last year, they had a good team, and I thought we would have a chance," Miller said. "I was convinced when I met the players, and we kept motivated all year."

Senior guard Onna Charles, a former New Iberia Senior High star who grew up 25 miles from campus, has witnessed first hand a UL program that has taken quantum leaps under coaches J. Kelley Hall and Meredith Hall.

Charles was a sophomore on the 2004 team that lost to Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt Tournament finals, as this team did, but was denied even an WNIT bid.

"When I started off in high school, NISH had a bad program," Charles said, "but I knew with hard work and motivation that we could build it to be the best. There was never a doubt in my mind. We’ve done the same thing here.

"This definitely feels great. We’ve grown together, and when we saw our name pop up Monday on TV, we were all hugging each other. This has definitely brought us closer."

Walk-on forward Katie Boudreaux is riding a wave of wonder after joining the Cajuns in 2005.

"Three years ago when the men made the NCAA tournament and were playing Louisville, I remember how exciting that was and what a good feeling it would be if they would win," said Boudreaux, a former Mandeville star.

"Then I got to thinking that I missed basketball. I said, ‘The girls are pretty good. I wonder if I could just walk on.’ Now, I’m here, and I can’t believe it."

The next task for the Cajuns will be to remain level-headed in the NCAA setting.

"It’s different for everybody," Jones said. "No one expected us to be here. We know what we’ve got to do."

"We have to realize what an opportunity we have here," Boudreaux said. "What a story we could tell with a win. We just have to believe in ourselves."

That’s no problem for Charles, who toted her good luck, black-and-gold NISH blanket on board just as she has for every trip as a Cajun.

"If we stay focused, we’ll get the most out of it," she said.