Saturday, March 19, 2011

NCAAs: Will "13" be lucky for Hampton?

Quanneisha Perry
Judging from their reaction when the word "Hampton" popped up on the jumbo TV screen Monday night, the Lady Pirates may have been the happiest No. 13 seeds in NCAA Tournament history.

"That's an awesome number," Lady Pirates senior Laura Lewis said with a smile that could have illuminated the entire Student Center Ballroom. "When I saw that... I mean, it's an awesome number. Awesome."

MEAC foes would no doubt use that same word to describe the Lady Pirates, who will travel to Albuquerque, N.M. to take on No. 4 Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday at 6:45 p.m. (ESPN2). On Saturday, Hampton completed its Shermanesque march through their conference by crushing Howard 61-42 in the conference championship game.

Of course, the NCAA selection committee usually doesn't hand out No. 13 seeds for winning the lightly-regarded MEAC, which is ranked 25th of 32 Division I conferences according to In fact, prior to this year, no women's team from that league had ever been seeded higher than 14 in a 64-team field. The Lady Pirates were at No. 15 after winning the MEAC last year, their first under coach David Six.

But as we've noted many times in this space, this year's Hampton isn't your typical MEAC champion. Since taking over at Hampton two years ago, Six has maintained that his goal is to change the culture regarding how people view Hampton women's basketball. Based on the historic seeding, it's clear the committee didn't view this bunch by MEAC standards past.

Six believes the benefit-of-the-doubt in seeding came with a catch - instead of assigning Hampton to travel-friendlier sites in Charlottesville or College Park, Md., the Lady Pirates were shipped 1,699 miles from campus in New Mexico.

"But I'm OK with that," Six said. "I'm glad the NCAA did the right thing. We're looking forward to going to Albuquerque, and we're going to get us some Wildcat."

Tough talk, for sure. But on paper at least, there doesn't appear to be much for a team like Kentucky to worry about. The Lady Pirates may have less depth than any team in the tournament; starters Lewis, Quanneisha Perry, Melanie Warner, Choicetta McMillian and Jericka Jenkins routinely play 35-plus minutes each game. Jenkins, who ranks No. 2 in Division I in assists (7.3), has played all 40 minutes the last five games and 13 times this season.

Laura Lewis
With no starter taller than 5-11, the Lady Pirates may also be the smallest team in the field. The Lady Pirates media guide lists Lewis at 6-2. Yeah, in stiletto heels on her way to the club.

"It's about four inches off," Lewis acknowledged.

Two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Quanneisha Perry is all of 5-10. Melanie Warner checks in at 5-10. Choicetta McMillian is 5-7. Jenkins, the cancer-surviving point guard, is all of 5-4.

Finally, the Lady Pirates have played virtually the entire season without all-conference guard Bernadette Fortune, who hobbled through part of six games on a bum left ankle before shutting it down for good. Fortune underwent surgery in January.

So let's see. No size, no depth, no all-league problem? Well, it wasn't when the Lady Pirates shocked eventual CAA champion James Madison in Harrisonburg in the teams' season opener. It wasn't when they scored the first win over an SEC team in program history by shellacking Florida by 15 points in December - the same Florida that fell by just a point to Kentucky a couple of months later. And it definitely wasn't while they punished MEAC foes by an average of 18.6 points.

Six has his players convinced that if they limit turnovers and sell out on defense (only 11 of 333 D-I teams give up fewer points), the Lady Pirates can be significantly greater than the sum of their individual parts.

"We don't have great talent, no Top 50, Top 100 players," Six said. "But when we come together...Laura, come here for a minute. Laura, what are we when we come together?"

"Power Rangers," Lewis replied.

In terms of perception, Hampton's results to date and subsequent seeding makes 2010-11 a success no matter what happens next. But the Lady Pirates clearly believe they aren't finished yet, and appear determined to prove that the happiest No. 13 seed in the tournament just might be the most dangerous one, too.

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