Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hampton seizes MEAC lead; Liberty clinches top seed in Big South

Saturday's results:

Hampon 46, Florida A&M 43: Relying on the thing that's made them famous - defense - the Lady Pirates toughed out another one in a showdown of first-place teams and removed the most significant remaining obstacle to a successful defense of their MEAC regular-season supremacy. In a game pitting the MEAC's highest-scoring team (Florida A&M came in averaging more than 70 points per game) against Hampton's league's stingiest defense, the Lady Pirates succeeded in getting the game played on their terms. For the game the Lady Pirates shot just 28 percent, but they made it work by limiting the Lady Rattlers to a measly 23 percent. Clearly it still wasn't easy, though, and victory wasn't secure until Florida A&M's Tamika McKelton came up short on a last-second 3-pointer. Each team's stars struggled mightily. Florida A&M's Antonia Bennett, who came in averaging better than 18 points a game and is a leading candidate for conference player of the year honors, scored only 8 Saturday on 3-of-15 shooting. Hampton's Jericka Jenkins, the nation's leader in assists, had just one assist and 6 turnovers. Keiara Avant stepped into the spotlight for the Lady Pirates, finishing with 18 points and 17 rebounds.

The win gave Hampton (21-4, 13-1 MEAC) a one-game lead in the loss column over Florida A&M (19-7, 12-2) and Howard (22-7, 14-2) with two Lady Pirates games remaining. In addition to claiming the top seed in the MEAC Tournament, Hampton finishing with the top record in the MEAC would guarantee the Lady Pirates an automatic bid to the WNIT. Of course, the Lady Pirates want to win the MEAC Tournament and make a third trip to the NCAAs. Still, winning their last two games would assure the Lady Pirates that no matter what happens in the conference tournament, they're assured of being in someone's postseason tournament. And while Saturday's victory solidified Hampton's standing as the favorite to win its third straight MEAC Tournament crown, the gap between the Lady Pirates and their closest pursuers isn't nearly as great as it's been the past two seasons. Furthermore, the Lady Pirates may be without senior starter Melanie Warner (10.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) for the rest of the season. According to the Newport News Daily Press, Warner broke a finger during practice a week ago.

In other games Saturday:

Liberty 76, Gardner-Webb 44: The Lady Flames (19-8, 14-2 Big South) clinched the No. 1 seed in the Big South Tournament - and an automatic bid to the WNIT - with an expected thumping of hapless Gardner-Webb (3-23, 2-13). With the Runnin' Bulldogs missing their first 18 field goal attempts, Liberty surged to a 31-4 lead and cruised from there. Prior to the game, the Lady Flames honored seniors Avery Warley and Danika Dale. Warley marked the occasion by going for 18 points and 15 rebounds to become the first Big South player to top 1,200 boards (1,209). Dale did her part by chipping in 7 points and 9 rebounds. But while Saturday was designated as Senior Day, Lady Flames fans will have two more regular season chances to cheer on Warley and Dale, as Liberty will close out the campaign with home games Monday against UNC Asheville and Friday against Radford.

Radford 79, UNC Asheville 66: Nice bounce-back efforts from Da'Naria Erwin Spencer (24 points) and Ashley Buckhannon (21), who struggled offensively in Monday's loss at Winthrop. Game was closer than the final score indicates much of the way, as the lead changed hands 12 times in a first half that ended with the Highlanders ahead by just three. Radford (15-12, 9-7 Big South) broke things open with a 16-4 run midway through the second half.

Bethune-Cookman 83, Norfolk State 73: In a lot of ways this game was the complete opposite of the Hampton-Florida A&M scrum. The Spartans (10-15, 5-9 MEAC) fell despite a career-high 32 points from reigning MEAC Player of the Week Whitney Long, who hit 12 of 16 shots - 6 of 9 from 3-point range - and eclipsed her previous high of 27 set six days ago in a win over Maryland-Eastern Shore. A lot of folks were feeling it offensively for the Spartans, who shot 53.7 percent from the field. But the Wildcats (10-16, 7-7) didn't miss much, either (30 of 60 field goals) feasting on NSU's 25 turnovers, which led to 20 B-C points.

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