Guard's development a key to team's rise

When Carver High's Laurie Bridges signed with Louisiana just after the Ragin' Cajuns' appearance in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, he expected return trips to be an annual occurrence.

Little did Bridges know, ULL wouldn't go back to the NCAA Tournament until he was a senior. The Sun Belt Conference champions meet North Carolina State on Friday in Orlando, Fla., in an opening-round game.

"Things don't always turn out like you think they will," said Bridges, a 6-foot-4 guard. "But it's sure a good feeling to be there now, especially because I'm a senior.

"This is going out with a bang."

In Bridges' case, though, it might be a quiet bang.

He is the leader of a team that has seven players averaging between 9.1 and 13.2 points per game, and he is seldom flashy on the court or talkative off it.

"I'm not much of a vocal leader," Bridges said. "Other guys may give speeches, but that's not me. I'd rather be known as the hardest-working guy on the team. I want my teammates to say 'Let's play like he's playing.' "

Others certainly have noticed his play and leadership. He was a second-team all-conference pick, making him the most-honored player from ULL, a team that won the Sun Belt regular-season title by two games and the conference tournament. Coaches, teammates and boosters voted him co-MVP of the team.

"I voted him MVP in the conference," said UNO coach Monte Towe. "We didn't have a dominant player in this league, but Bridges was the one that kept everything together for them. He's all about winning."

Added ULL coach Jessie Evans, "Laurie's meant everything to us this year. He does the right things and says the right things. Nobody plays harder."

Evans likes to talk about Bridges' toughness, such as the time this season he had a tooth knocked out, and wanted to go back into the game two minutes later. Or the time he took six stitches in his tongue at halftime and finished the game.

"That makes everybody else want to go a little bit harder," Evans said.

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By Ted Lewis