Southeastern Louisiana set to face Iowa in First Round of NCAA Tournament

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Hailey Giaratano
(Photo by Erik Williams/Southland Communications)

HAMMOND, La. – The Southeastern Louisiana University women’s basketball team will open its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament with a first round contest at Iowa Friday at 3 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The Southland Conference regular season and tournament champion Lady Lions (21-9) are the No. 15 seed in Seattle Regional 4 and SLU comes to Iowa City with 20-plus wins in a season for the first time since 1994-95. Iowa (26-6) earned the No. 2 seed after winning the Big Ten Conference Tournament for the second straight season.

Wednesday’s game will be televised on ESPN. Live stats, provided by the host Hawkeyes, will be accessible at

Southeastern rallied in both of its postseason wins at last week’s Southland Conference Tournament in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The Lady Lions trailed Texas A&M-Commerce by seven with 90 seconds left in regulation in last Wednesday’s semifinals. SLU rallied to force overtime and SLC Tournament MVP Hailey Giaratano banked in the game winner from just outside the lane with 0.4 seconds left in overtime.

The Lady Lions again fell behind in the finals, trailing by nine at the half to third-seeded Lamar. SLU sophomore and SLC All-Tournament selection Taylor Bell scored 17 of her game-high 22 points in the second half, as Southeastern outscored Lamar, 39-21, over the final 20 minutes on the way to the historic 66-57 victory.

The tournament path was a microcosm of the six-year journey Southeastern has endured has traveled under 2022-23 Southland Coach of the Year Ayla Guzzardo, who has seen the Lady Lions make steady progress since the Hammond, Louisiana native took over her hometown program prior to the 2017-18 season.

Guzzardo took over a program that was a combined 24-93 in the four seasons preceding her tenure. Her debut season saw the Lady Lions go 8-21 overall and 7-11 in Southland Conference play. SLU finished 9-20 in Guzzardo’s second year before reaching its first accomplishment in year three.

The 2019-20 Lady Lions advanced to the Southland Conference Tournament for the first time since the 2011-12 season. SLU was set to face New Orleans in the first round. With both teams on the floor set for tip-off, the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020-21 season saw Southeastern post its first winning season since 2009-10 and earn a No. 2 seed and a bye into the semifinals, where it lost a 79-77 heartbreaker to Sam Houston State.

Guzzardo’s fifth season in Hammond saw the 2021-22 Lady Lions open the SLC Tournament with an 80-66 quarterfinal victory over New Orleans – the program’s first conference tournament win since the 2001-02 season.

After earning a spot in the final with a 59-54 overtime win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the semifinals, SLU fell to UIW, 56-52, in overtime. All the trials and tribulations of the previous five seasons made the break through for this season’s squad that much sweeter.

Guzzardo and her staff have proudly brought the program its first conference championship with Louisiana products. Leading the way on offense are All-SLC performers Giaratano (12.4 ppg / Ponchatoula, Louisiana) and Alexius Horne (12.0 ppg / Baton Rouge, Louisiana), while Bell (8.5 ppg / Shreveport, Louisiana) is the top scorer off the bench and Daija Harvey (36 3-FG / Donaldsonville, Louisiana) is the best outside shooter.

Dynamic freshman guard Jen Pierre (2.8 apg / Amite, Louisiana) leads the team in assists, while Natalie Kelly (8.5 rpg / Albany, Louisiana) and Chrissy Brown (6.9 rpg / Lafayette, Louisiana) are the team’s best rebounders.

The trio also leads a Southeastern defense that is 14th nationally with 54.5 points per game allowed. Kelly is 19th nationally in blocked shots per game (2.2), Pierre has a team-high 49 steals and Brown consistently guards the opponent’s best scorer.

Southeastern’s lone starter from outside the Pelican State, Cierria Cunningham (7.3 ppg / Tuscaloosa, Alabama), also has a special bond with Guzzardo. Cunningham came to Hammond after a two-year stint at point guard at Shelton State Community College – the same position and school where Guzzardo started her collegiate career.

SLU will face the nation’s top scoring offense in Iowa, as the Hawkeyes lead Division I with 87.5 points per game, 21.1 assists per contest and a 50.9 field goal percentage. The Hawkeyes will be making their 29th NCAA Tournament appearance against a Lady Lion squad that is making its postseason debut on the national stage.

The nation’s best player and two-time Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Caitlin Clark is the leader of the Hawkeyes, averaging 27.0 points, a Division I-high 8.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game. The junior guard also ranks among the national leaders in field goals made (277, 4th), free throws made (202, 2nd) and three-point field goals (108, 1st).

Clark is not the only weapon for the high-powered hosts. Monika Czinano (17.3 ppg) and McKenna Warnock (11.0 ppg) are the other top scorers for Iowa.

Iowa is 15-1 at home this season. The Hawkeyes closed out their pre-NCAA Tournament performance by winning seven of their final eight, culminating with a 105-72 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference Tournament final.

The winner of the SLU-Iowa first round matchup will face the winner of Friday’s 12:30 p.m. first round matchup between seventh-seeded Florida State and No. 10 seed Georgia. Tip time and broadcast information for Sunday’s second-round contest is to be announced.

For more information on Southeastern Women’s Basketball, follow @LionUpWBB on Twitter, like /SoutheasternWBB on Facebook and subscribe to the SLUathletics YouTube channel.

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