Tears, cheers and prayers pay off as Ragin' Cajuns earn NCAA bid

By day, Jayda Evans is a sports reporter for The Seattle Times. But by night this week she was the coach's daughter, cheering her dad and her brother into the Big Dance. Here is her insider's view to what happened with Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Forgive me for using my Mardi Gras beads as a rosary. I started biting on them with 1 minute, 23 seconds left in the basketball game as tears streamed down my face.

I kept thinking, "When is this going to happen for my dad?"

Louisiana-Lafayette Coach Jessie Evans, my dad, has spent 25 years working in this business trying to get respect as a coach and a recruiter. But the recognition only comes when you win the big games; and here the Ragin' Cajuns were, playing for the Sun Belt Conference men's tournament championship, the one game that could finally nudge my father into the spotlight, and we were losing 50-46 to the hated South Alabama.

I started praying - not for myself, not for the Ragin' Cajuns, and not for the fans. I started praying for my dad.

For the all the hours he spent in cramped airline seats flying around this country looking for players. All the nights in hotel rooms alone, getting updates of his family's life through a telephone. All the times an athletic director told him he was one of the top candidates, but he was going to go with someone else.

I started praying for all of that.

Then I squeezed my eyes shut, clinched my "Geaux Cajuns" sign and let the game happen.

Australian Brett Smith, who is a horrid free-throw shooter, made two from the line for Louisiana-Lafayette. Blane Harmon added a smooth layup inside. And with 4 seconds left in the game, Lonnie Thomas turned underneath the basket and sank the game-winning shot.

South Alabama called two timeouts, trying to muster up a miracle, but it didn't happen. Not last night in front of 1,368 fans at Alltel Arena and thousands more on ESPN.

This time, we won 51-50.

My dad, who won an NCAA championship as an assistant coach at Arizona in 1997, tried so hard to keep his cool. He wants to have this "I've been there before, this is nothing" demeanor; but he couldn't hold it for long. I watched him spin one of his coaches around, bursting with joy. Then I lost it.

After I flung my confetti in the air, I grabbed my media badge and darted for the court. I shoved two Cajun cheerleaders and the ESPN camera guy (who I spent the whole game baiting to film me) as I tried to get to my father. I found him at the free-throw line in front of our bench and jumped into his arms.

"We're going to the Big Dance, Jay! We're going to the Big Dance, Jay," he said as he drowned me in his huge arms. I'm always Daddy's little girl, but the 4-year-old came out of me again.

I've always loved watching him coach. I usually picked out his necktie before the game and stood in the stands waving whatever I can find to help him get his point across to the players. I was so proud to do it again, in his 709th game - the one that sends him and the Ragin' Cajuns to the NCAA Tournament.

"It's just like Mardi Gras! It's Mardi Gras in Little Rock," my dad told some radio personality in a telephone interview. He was sitting to my right as I wrote this, and my mom, Nancy, was behind me telling all the other writers how I'm writing his story, our story, for The Seattle Times. I tried to stop my hands from shaking and the tears from messing up the switchboard in my computer.

So, Louisiana (25-8) is in the tournament!

How does it feel? Honestly, it's like parasailing, hang-gliding or skydiving.

You're up there alone, or maybe with a few other people, and a hush falls over everything. You feel on top of the world, looking down at the little objects below.

Time is meaningless. I couldn't care less if tomorrow never comes. I just want to hang up here with my dad, never coming down.

And always wanting to drift higher.

I guess that will come a week from tomorrow when the real March Madness begins.

When you fill out your brackets after Selection Sunday, don't overlook us.

We're my dad's Ragin' Cajuns.

"And we might catch lightning in a bottle and win the whole thing," he said.