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By Lut Williams
Black College Sports Page

COLUMBUS, Oh. – Atlantic Region champion, CIAA member Virginia Union, roared back from double-digit first-half deficits to knock off 2nd-seeded Cal Baptist 86-81 Wednesday to advance to the championship game of the NCAA Div. II women’s basketball tournament.17 WBB D2 CHAMP FC w

The Lady Panthers (28-4) will take on undefeated and top seeded Ashland (36-0) in Friday’s 7:00 p.m. championship game that will be carried live on the CBS Sports Network. Ashland defeated Harding 90-77 in the other semifinal.

Just as they did in a quarterfinal win over Columbus State Tuesday, it was the second half that was the difference for the 6th-seeded Lady Panthers in the semifinal matchup. They outscored the Lady Lancers 47-33 in the second half after trailing 48-39 at the break.

Five-five senior guard Ashley Smith, playing off the bench as she has all season, was the catalyst as she darted in and around the Cal Baptist defense. She went for 20 of her game- and career-high 28 points in the second half to fuel the comeback. She also had five rebounds, three steals and two assists.

“Our defense was spurred by Ashley Smith, one of the smallest kids on our team with the biggest heart,” said victorious second-year VUU head coach AnnMarie Gilbert. “I’m just so proud that they (her team) took the adjustments. They took the hard coaching and finished this game in first-class fashion.”

Smith, who started only two games this season, spent most of her time playing behind VUU and CIAA scoring leader, junior guard Brittany Jackson (18.4 ppg.) who has not played since VUU lost in the CIAA Tournament semifinals. Gilbert dismissed Jackson from the team following that tournament. Smith has become the Lady Panthers’ key weapon from the guard position including scoring 14 in the Elite Eight win Tuesday over Columbus State.

VUU’s frontcourt stalwarts, 6-2 senior Lady Walker and 6-foot junior Alexis Johnson, controlled the paint. Walker was unstoppable inside with 18 points and a game-high 19 rebounds. Johnson scored 20 points and pulled down nine boards. They, along with freshman guard Kishona Sutton’s nine boards, spurred the Lady Panthers to a 68-39 edge off the glass and 56-24 advantage in points in the paint.

Point guard Rejoice Spivey, who had a crucial basket that put VUU up three at 82-79 with just under a minute left, led the Lady Panthers with five assists.

Cal Baptist (35-3), champions of the Big West conference and the West Region, came in on a 32-game winning streak and seeded second behind Ashland. It broke from a 5-5 tie early to go up by as much as 12, at 20-8 before settling for a 32-26 lead after one quarter. The Lady Lancers led again by a dozen three times in the second quarter, the last at 46-34 on a lay-up by Kamille Diaz with :55 seconds left. They led 48-39 at the half.

The Lady Panthers, after a good halftime talking-to by Gilbert, stormed out of the break with a 10-2 run, six by Smith, to get back within 50-49 prompting a CBU timeout. The Lady Lancers, who hit nine 3-pointers in the first half, seven in the first quarter to grab the early lead, misfired on nine of their first ten shots in the third period, four misses from 3-point range, to open the door for the comeback.

“We had to come together as a team and play defense,” Smith said of her team’s mindset coming out of the break. “It was really hard to play defense on them because they’re shooters. But, I’m glad we came together.”

VUU kept the pressure on and finally took their first lead since early in the game when Walker cashed in the first of two free throws with 1:49 left in the third to go up 58-57. Walker’s layup basket with 3 seconds left sent the Lady Panthers into the final period up 62-60.

CBU’s shooters started to find the range in the final period. They took their first second-half lead at 67-66 as Courtney Nelson, who finished with a team-high 24 points, canned her third 3-pointer with 6:40 to play. After Johnson tied it at 67 on a free throw, Nelson would drain another 3 to give the Lancers a 70-67 edge. After a Walker jumper cut the lead to 70-69, Nelson hit her third straight trey to put CBU up 73-69 with 4:52 left.

Smith drained two free throws before Nelson’s teammate Mihalko Cassidy got in on the action with a three of her own to give the Lancers a 76-71 lead with 4:10 left. A basket by Smith followed by a free throw and layup by Johnson tied the score at 76 before Nelson drained her sixth and final 3 of the night to give CBU a 79-76 lead with 2:32 to play.

Smith came right back 14 seconds later to drive for a layup and pull VUU within 79-78. After Nelson missed on a drive to the basket, Johnson put VUU up for good at 80-79 on a 12-foot jumper from the right side with 1:45 left. Nelson misfired on a 3-pointer, VUU rebounded and worked the clock down before Spivey drove left across the lane and put in the clutch left-handed layup to give VUU a 82-79 lead.

Cassidy missed on a layup attempt with 47 ticks left. The Lady Panthers brought the ball up but turned it over in the frontcourt with 27.5 seconds left giving CBU what would be its final chance. But Diaz, with a clear path to the basket, missed a layup attempt. Johnson rebounded and passed to Smith who was fouled and sank both free throws with 20 seconds left for an 84-79 margin. Diaz scored the Lancers’ final points on a layup with 14 seconds to go. Walker’s free throw with :03 seconds left provided the final margin.

“First, I just want to thank my team for believing in me,” said Smith. “My coach told me to keep driving. I’m quick out there. She told me to keep driving and that’s what I did.”

Asked how she feels entering the championship game, Smith said, “I’m so at a loss for words right now. You don’t understand. Me, being a senior, I’m just shaking right now. I just can’t wait.

“I’m ready to fight.”

VUU made it to last year’s Elite Eight in Gilbert’s first season before losing to Bentley (53-52) in the quarterfinals. The Lady Panthers won a Div. II national title in 1983 under late head coach Louis Hearn.

Now they hope to become the second CIAA women's basketball team to win a national title in the past five years.  Shaw University won the 2012 national championship.

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