Second-leading scorer in UL Women’s Basketball history, Lisa Merritt brought “Toney” factor to the court

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Lisa Merritt

LAFAYETTE – Ross Cook’s only question, when he was informed that Lisa Merritt was headed for induction into the UL Athletics Hall of Fame: Why did it take so long?

After all, the former UL women’s basketball coach knew greatness when he saw it.

“She lived and played with a grace and ease that occasionally made the rest of us feel way too human,” said Cook, whose four years at the helm of the Ragin’ Cajun program included one magical season in Merritt’s final year. “She had the ‘Andrew Toney’ factor … intelligent, quick and fast, a brilliant scorer who could create for herself and others almost at will. She had honed her skill into something wondrous and unique.”

Merritt, a four-year Cajun letterwinner from 1980-84, remains the second-leading scorer in Cajun history a full 37 years after her final playing season. Only Kim Perrot (2,157 points) scored more than the Bartow, Fla., product who passed away much too soon in 2018 at age 55.

Her 571 points in her junior season and her 20.3 scoring average that year still rank fourth and third respectively in UL’s women’s basketball history, and she led the Cajuns in scoring as both a sophomore and junior. Twice she scored 35 points in a game, at the time the most ever by a Cajun.

But when Cook needed her to step back from being a scoring machine and spread the ball around when she finally had a suitable supporting cast as a senior, Merritt happily agreed … and showed even more facets in her all-around game. It wasn’t by coincidence that the Cajuns went from consistent losing seasons to a 22-6 record in a magical 1983-84 campaign.

“It was a year like no other before or since,” Cook said. “Lisa was the leader in the belief in a new program and new ideas. That 22-6 may have been exactly opposite had Lisa’s strength and character as a person – besides being a great player – not been present. That was a talented team made wondrous by Lisa’s belief in cohesion and her leadership.”

The Cajuns had gone 18-10 the previous season when the fledgling Southland Conference Women’s League was trying to get organized, and then finished second in that league’s first full year when Merritt was a senior. The league had no reputation and postseason bids were few at the time, depriving Cook’s first team and Merritt’s final squad the chance to show its talents in the postseason.

It is a fact that five of the six losses that season went to teams that compiled a final 112-23 record.

Merritt was a predecessor and a classic example of the cliché about a player “filling up the box score,” and the numbers bear that out. Nearly four decades after her final season, she remains the only Cajun in history to rank in the school’s career top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Along with being the school’s second all-time leading scorer, she’s third in school history in career steals (261), fifth in career rebounds (723) and tenth in career assists (245).

“Lisa was a preeminent talent,” Cook said. “Her talent and skill demanded that everyone on the team improve. We had moments in practice when the flow and sheer beauty was palpable. She was the creator and the hub of such rare and magical moments … in big games and big moments, she was always ahead of the game. She’d whisper as we left time outs, ‘let me be the three spot’ that was designed for the critical shot.”

That’s part of the reason she made the Southland’s first two all-conference teams, and undoubtedly would have earned further honors had there been more opportunities at the time. And speaking of opportunities, Cook said that Merritt was well ahead of her time as far as championing civil rights for people of color.

“She would quietly lead the discussions that had us as a team to not stop the bus trips for meals in some states as we traveled to games throughout the South,” he said. “Those were dignified, heartfelt team-uniting moments standing against the injustices and the struggles of the slowly changing South. She just personified grace, reason and strength with perspective.”

Merritt joined the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s American Basketball Association after her final UL season, but that league folded that same year. After completing her UL degree in 1985 and without other basketball opportunities, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served her country for 20 years before retiring.

To Cook, the Navy’s gain was basketball’s loss.

“I used to ask Lisa in critical moments to put her power on the game, to take it over, to go as hard as she could for two or three minutes,” Cook said. “She’d dominate, and then she’d look at me for a rest and I’d look up at the roof. Lisa would be upset, but then she’d laugh.

“She was as big as any challenge we encountered, and she knew she was bigger than those moments. It was a real honor as a coach to teach and coach a person whom you admire so much.”

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