Delaware escaped Drexel to win back-to-back CAA titles (Photo courtesy of Delaware athletics)
Delaware escaped Drexel to win back-to-back CAA titles (Photo courtesy of Delaware athletics)

Mid-Majors hold to script, for the most part

March 18, 2013 - 7:46am

Players on NCAA Tournament bubble teams can breathe a bit easier after this week’s conclusion of the mid-major postseason tournaments.

Losses by St. Joseph’s (Atlantic 10), Green Bay (Horizon) and Delaware (Colonial Athletic) – as well as perhaps even Quinnipiac (Northeast) - in conference tournament finals would have provided NCAA Tournament bids to teams that would not have gotten in otherwise. All favorites prevailed, though, so bubble team supporters don’t have to chew on those fingernails quite so viciously in advance of Monday’s Selection Show.

Quinnipiac (30-2) ended the suspense quickly by roaring out to a 32-15 halftime lead and cruising past St. Francis (Pa.) 72-33 in the Northeast title game. The victory was the Bobcats’ 22nd straight.

Likewise, Green Bay flexed its usual defensive muscles and ground down Loyola 54-38 to punch its ticket and claim the Phoenix’s 24th straight win.

But there was high drama in Saturday’s Atlantic 10 title game, which was played in prime time at the spanking new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.  St. Joseph’s overcame a 12-0 deficit, then nursed a two-point lead over the final 1:47 to claim a 47-46 victory over Fordham to clinch the Hawks’ first NCAA bid since 2000.

With victories over Maryland and Dayton already on file, St, Joe's was likely an NCAA Tournament team regardless of Saturday’s outcome. Fordham needed a win.

So did Drexel, which pushed Delaware to the limit in Sunday’s CAA final before succumbing 59-56. The Dragons fell into huge deficits in the first and second half but reeled the Blue Hens in both times and actually seized a one-point lead with just over a minute to play.

Down the stretch, however, two crucial calls went against the Dragons. On the first, Drexel’s Taylor Wootton appeared to have "pulled the chair out from under" a hard-posting Elena Delle Donne on the right block, backing away from the Delaware superstar with her hands raised as Delle Donne fell to the floor. The call went against Wooten, though, and Delle Donne, a 92-percent free throw shooter, sank both to give Delaware a two-point advantage.

Wootton responded by nailing a 3-pointer with 1:12 left to make it 56-55 Drexel. But with 44 seconds left, Drexel’s Abby Redick was called for a blocking foul on Trumae Lucas. The Delaware senior guard drained both free throws to put the Blue Hens ahead to stay. Delle Donne added two more free throws to secure the Blue Hens’ 42nd straight victory over CAA foes.

“We came so close,” Drexel coach Denise Dillon said.  Instead, the Dragons are now WNIT-bound.

And the bubble isn’t nearly as small as it could have been.

Remember this name, folks – Alyssa Bennett.

Never mind that Hampton’s 6-1 junior wasn’t even named to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference all-tournament. After watching the Lady Pirates three-game sprint to their fourth consecutive MEAC title, Bennett clearly seemed like the best player on the floor.

Bennett has a sweet, albeit sometimes erratic, stroke on her jumper, excellent hops and an explosive first step. But it’s what she does when the other team has the ball that sets her apart. Bennett is such a versatile defender her coach, David Six, doesn’t hesitate to assign her to the opponent’s most lethal threat be it a guard, a center or anything in between.

“When she gets out there and spreads her arms, she’s like a condor,” Six said of Bennett, a runaway selection for MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.

In the semifinals, Bennett limited Coppin State wing Leola Spotwood, the team’s leading scorer who was coming off an 18-point performance, to 5 points on 2-of-8 shooting. A day later, Bennett harassed Howard’s Saadia Doyle, the MEAC’s all-time leading scorer and a 20-points-per-game producer this season, into a 9-point, 2-of-9 shooting effort.

A Hampton native, Bennett was at one time ranked the No. 32 recruit in the nation and seemed destined to play for a high-major.  But after a year of prep school, Bennett surfaced at a Florida junior college and was then out of school entirely.  It took her more than a year to get her academics in order, but now the Lady Pirates have a weapon few MEAC opponents – or those in most other leagues, for that matter – can handle.

“She’s a WNBA prospect, no question about it,” Coppin State coach Derek Brown said.

Other notable results

Instant classic: It took four overtimes and an eight-3-pointer barrage from tournament MVP Kiara Etienne to determine the SWAC  champion. Etienne finished with 31 points to lead Prairie View past Mississippi Valley State 100-87. Prairie View outscored MVSU 15-2 in the fourth overtime, although by that point, who can blame the Devilettes for being worn out?

Who invited these guys: New Mountain West Conference members Fresno State surprised top-seeded San Diego State in the MWC title game. Of course, the Bulldogs have proven they know how to get it done this time of year, as they joined their new league after winning the last two and four of the past five Western Athletic Conference tournament titles.

The victory snapped a 17-game San Diego State winning streak.

Meanwhile, new Southland Conference arrival Oral Roberts clipped Sam Houston State 72-66 to book their first NCAA appearance since 2008. Star guard Kevi Luper led the way with 26 points and was named the tournament MVP. Ironically, because of a quirk in the rules regarding how preseason all-conference members are selected, Luper was just a second-team All-Southland pick back in October.

Oral Roberts formerly played in the Summit League.

Go figure: A couple of weeks ago, we called the Atlantic Sun’s Florida Gulf Coast, which had run roughshod over conference foes the past two seasons, the most prohibitive favorite of all the tournaments. Well, that’s why they play the games – on March 9, Stetson surprised FGCU 70-64 in the A-Sun final, snapping the Eagles’ 21-game winning streak while dealing them their first loss in 42 games against conference foes.

The Eagles (27-6) are still holding out hope for an at-large bid, but should not be surprised if the NCAA selection committee sees it differently.

Beware of the Chippewas: Looking for darkhorse teams capable of a marquee upset come NCAA tourney time?  Consider Central Michigan, which upended Arkon 86-68 to win the Mid-American Conference tournament. Granted, the Chippewas (21-11) have double-digit losses and entered the MAC tourney as only a No. 4 seed. But led by first-team All-MAC performer Crystal Bradford, this team has risen to big occasions all season. The Chippewas have quality wins over Green Bay, St. Joseph's and Toledo (twice) fell by just nine against Notre Dame. And after struggling through a stretch during which they lost four of seven games, CMU closed with a five-game winning streak, a stretch that included a win over top-seeded Toledo in the MAC semifinals.

Tulsa on a roll: In Conference USA, Tulsa put together their first five game win streak of the year to win the confernce title and claim their first NCAA automatic bid since 2006, despite an overall record of 17-16.  The Golden Hurricanes held off a late rally by Central Florida for the 75-66 win.  Tusla guard Taleya Mayberry scored a game high 25 points and claimed MVP honors.