Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns’ women’s basketball coach Garry Brodhead has built a program on toughness.
After all, his teams always rank near the top of the Sun Belt Conference in defense, which is usually a great indicator of a team’s grit and effort. Despite basketball as a whole trending towards offense, scoring, and flashiness, Brodhead has kept his teams rooted on the other side of things.
“Everybody was into the offensive plays, the motions. I was always into trying to figure out a defense that could make stops, because you can play defense every night… So that was my philosophy.”
Brodhead’s mentality has seen confirmation in the results during his 12-year tenure at Louisiana. The Cajuns have ranked fourth or better defensively for five consecutive years in the Sun Belt Conference. It is a rough and tough way of playing that may not be one of the more popular styles in today’s game. However, it has given his Louisiana program stability and sustained success. They have now won 16 or more games in four straight seasons, and that defensive mindset allows Brodhead’s teams to have a toughness and an edge about them that is always valuable come tournament time.
“I think it helps us more. On the offensive side, I think you show up in a tournament setting where it’s one and done and the kids get a little nervous. They won’t shoot the ball as well, and they might turn it over more because of the pressure. On the defensive side, you can show up and make stops.”
Another aspect of that defensive mindset is the ability to overcome adversity. This year’s team is no exception to that, and in some ways might be the best example of it during the decade plus of Brodhead-led Cajuns teams. Just look at the leaders of this Louisiana roster as examples.
You can not tell the story of the 2023-24 Ragin’ Cajuns without beginning with Brandi Williams. Williams burst onto the scene in 2018-19 with one of the better freshman seasons in program history. That season earned her the SBC Freshman of the Year Award. She followed that up with a solid second season, but the pandemic ended the Cajuns’ run earlier than expected. Her third year again had her in the conversation of the conference’s best, earning second team All-SBC honors.
The beginning of her fourth season started off excellent, with Williams averaging over 15 points per game. However, just four games into the year, she suffered a devastating knee injury. It ended her season, and while working to get back the following off-season, she suffered a setback, which forced her to miss the entirety of the following season as well.
Despite nearly two full years of recovery, Williams did not have much doubt about not only making a return to basketball this season, but being an even better player than she was before the injury.
“Not at all. Just because of my work ethic and how I was raised, I knew I was going to be better than I was before I got hurt,” Williams said.
All she’s done in her return season? How about leading the team in scoring and minutes played. In addition, she is a leader on and off the floor, always looking to help her teammates in any way possible.
“I have never seen anybody rehab like her… She listens to exactly what we are telling her. She is always doing more… She’s a worker. She’s one of the better shooters that I have ever coached and it is a pleasure to have somebody like that in our program,” Brodhead added.
While Brandi leads the team in scoring and minutes, she has one teammate who trails her just slightly in both categories.
That would be junior forward Tamera Johnson. Johnson is a local product, having played high school basketball for Lafayette Christian Academy. However, basketball was not something she played all growing up. She did not begin playing competitive basketball until the eighth grade.
Despite the late start, it did not take Tamera long to pick up the game.
“I have always been athletic, so I picked up on the athleticism (portion of the game) right away, and I feel like I had a good understanding of the game so I did pick it up quickly,” Johnson said.
While picking up the game later than most could be seen as a disadvantage, Coach Brodhead actually thinks it has had the opposite effect on Tamera.
“Sometimes it’s better that you don’t have any bad habits. She learns fast… As you play for a long period of time, you start to know what you can and can not do, and sometimes that’s a bad thing. Tamera doesn’t know what she can not do. She is tenacious in what she does,” Brodhead said.
Despite beginning the sport later on, she plays like a natural. Her high intensity on both ends of the court gives the team a lift. Additionally, she makes sure to play through almost anything, even broken noses, which for some reason have been common in her career. Johnson has now broken her nose three different times during her Cajuns career, forcing her to wear a protective mask that she is not very fond of.
“I’m not even mad that I broke my nose, I’m just mad that breaking my nose means that I have to wear the face shield,” Johnson said with a smile.
Still, she barely ever misses games and her toughness is easy to see.
“She doesn’t think that there’s a rebound that she can’t get. She goes after it, and that’s why she has broken her nose… She’s so coachable. And whatever she is going to do in life, she is going to be really successful because of her mindset, her attitude, and her positivity,” Brodhead added.
Perhaps the biggest leader on this year’s Cajuns team is actually a player who started her career elsewhere.
Destiny Rice committed to play for Alabama after a successful high school career at North Caddo where she was a part of multiple state championships. Unfortunately, Destiny injured her knee in the state championship game, creating a setback right at the beginning of her college career. In her time with the Crimson Tide, she played sparingly, contributing in 33 total games across two seasons. Eventually, she decided it was time for a change, but she still recognizes how much she learned while at Alabama.
“Even when I didn’t play, I was a sponge. I just tried to soak it all in. I don’t regret what I went through because I would not have known how strong I was,” Rice explained.
Now in her third year with Louisiana, Rice has settled in as one of the vocal leaders. On the floor, she runs the show as a point guard and floor general, always controlling the tempo of the game when she is in there. As has been a common theme for this team, she faced another bout of adversity in conference play. Destiny suffered a knee injury, putting the rest of her season in doubt.
“It’s my last season, so I talked to our trainer and the doctors and just asked about doing whatever I need to do to be able to finish the season,” Rice said.
Despite the injury, Rice missed just two games and has returned to help her team down the stretch in the race for the Sun Belt Conference. Yet another example in the toughness instilled in Garry Brodhead led basketball teams. And Destiny echoed the sentiments of her teammates and coaches when asked about the goals for the rest of the season.
“To be consistent. We have the team, we have all the pieces, it is just about being consistent as a team.”
The various injuries, illnesses, and other factors of the season have caused some problems for this year’s team.
The Ragin’ Cajuns currently sit 9-12 overall, and 5-7 in SBC play. However, they have plenty of the characteristics of the better teams that coach Brodhead has had at UL. As the tournament approaches, this group knows they just have to be able to put their best basketball on display in Pensacola in early March. The other thing they know is that any amount of adversity they face along the way is likely to be nothing in comparison to what many of them have already overcome.