Saturday, March 16, 2013

Four--ward progress - Hampton does it again

David Six keeps insisting that when the 2012-13 Hampton Lady Pirates first assembled last fall, they weren't very good.

Sure didn't take 'em long to catch on. Or catch fire. Or leave the rest of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in their wake once again.

In a never-in-doubt MEAC title game, the Lady Pirates smoked Howard 59-38 Saturday at the Norfolk Scope to complete a perfect conference schedule - 16-0 regular season; 3-0 tournament - claim their fourth straight conference crown and book yet another ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

"I'm not going to say where we should be seeded, but I don't think we're a 15 or 16 seed," said Six, who along with many others felt Hampton was underseeded at 16 last season. "I haven't seen all the other teams play, but we've got some quality wins. I certainly don't think we're a 15, 16. I think 13 is fair.

"We don't control what the NCAA does. But if we're given the seed we're warranted, we're very dangerous."

Evidently it didn't start out that way. With injuries and several players adjusting to new roles - most notably off guard Nicole Hamilton shifting to the vital point guard slot - Six said these Lady Pirates started off bearing little resemblance to the juggernauts of the previous three years.

"If you saw our first scrimmage, you'd have said, 'No,' Six said. "No."

Hamilton put it even more succinctly: "We were terrible."

We'll have to take them at their word, because the rest of us never saw Hampton in disarray. In the Lady Pirates' season opener, the won at Southern Mississippi by 37. Two games later, they stomped LSU. And while they endured a few hiccups over the next several weeks, they regained top form midway through the conference slate and tore through MEAC foes the rest of the way.

"This is the most improved team I've had probably since I started coaching," Six said.

Howard became the latest victim in Saturday's lopsided final. Thanks in large part to Hampton's always-voracious defense, the Lady Bison connected on just 5 of 27 first-half field goals and managed just 15 points in the opening 20 minutes.

As usual, Lady Pirates junior Alyssa Bennett led the defensive assault by neutralizing Howard star Saadia Doyle. The MEAC's leading scorer, Doyle began play averaging over 20 points per game was coming off a 27-point performance in Friday's semifinals. On Saturday, when Bennett shadowing her every move, Doyle produced only 9 points on 2 of 8 shooting.

Howard boasts a quality defense, too, and it coerced enough Hampton turnovers to keep things from getting completely out of hand at times. But Hampton has a variety of offensive weapons as well, and Howard simply couldn't guard them all.

Bennett burned them early with a handful of sweet jump shots. Late in the first half, with Hampton up 10, Olivia Allen broke the game open by scoring 9 straight points in a 63-second span - 2 3-pointers and 3 free throws after being fouled in the act of launching another.

"The funny thing about that is we actually were running that play wrong," Six said. "It was actually supposed to go to (Hamilton) in the corner. I guess Olivia felt like she had something. So I won't take the credit for that, the credit goes to her. She was able to knock down some big shots and give us some cushion."

Add in 12 points from tournament most outstanding player Keiara Avant and 10 more from Hamilton and the result was a comfortable working margin on the way to MEAC title No. 4.

"Obviously it's sweet," Six said. "What's even sweeter is there were four kids from this area who started today, all from the same area code, the 757 (Hamilton and Bennett are from Hampton, Ariel Phelps is from Virginia Beach and Avant is a Chesapeake native).  They went 28-5, beat some big schools out of the conference and got a chance to show how this area is so rich in talent. And, they got a chance to win it at home."

It's not over yet, either. Hampton will host an NCAA Selection Show Party on Monday beginning at 6 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom. The selection show will air live on ESPN at 7 p.m.

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