Friday, March 15, 2013

Hampton, Howard meet in 3rd straight MEAC final

Over the past two seasons, there has been only one team standing between Howard and MEAC championship gold - Hampton.

Guess who's standing in the Lady Bison's way once again?

After dropping the last two MEAC title games to the Lady Pirates, Howard will try its luck for a third time in the conference title game Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Norfolk Scope.

History isn't on Howard's side. In addition to dropping the last two MEAC finals to the Lady Pirates, the Bison lost both meetings with Hampton this season and have dropped nine straight in the series. Of those setbacks, none was more excruciating than the 2012 MEAC title game when the Bison were unable to convert on three shot attempts in the final seconds and lost by one point.

Howard star Saadia Doyle certainly remembers. And judging by the intensity of her remarks a few minutes after the Bison dispatched No. 2 North Carolina A&T in Friday's semifinals, Doyle seemed prepared to play the title game right then.

"This is more important than Christmas, your birthday....," Doyle said. "This isn't about the battle of the HUs or anything like that. It's about you've deprived me of something I've wanted to be associated with my whole life, and that's being part of a championship team."

Problem is, three-time defending tournament champion Hampton has a well-earned reputation for crushing the dreams of all MEAC rivals. The top-seeded Lady Pirates (27-5) were at it again Friday, when they surged past No. 5 Coppin State 78-52 to book a spot in Saturday's final. It was Hampton's 29th straight win against MEAC opposition.

"It's a great feeling being one game away, but we haven't reached our goal yet," said Hampton's Keiara Avant, the MEAC Player of the Year. "So we still have to focus in and take care of business tomorrow."

The score is a bit misleading because for the first 30 minutes or so, the fiesty Lady Bears gave as good as they got and were down by just six with a little under 11 minutes to go. Hampton's intensity, athleticism and talent ultimately won out, though, as the Lady Pirates outscored Coppin State 30-10 the rest of the way.

Nicole Hamilton poured in a career-high 26 points and ol' reliable Avant added 20 points and 12 rebounds. Ariel Phelps added 10 boards, most of which she ripped down with frightening authority.

"Phelps gave us great energy, great rebounding," Hampton coach David Six said. "I thought she had a fantastic game."

 And then there was Hampton's Alyssa Bennett, whose numbers (12 points, 9 rebounds) barely hint at her impact. The MEAC's Defensive Player of the Year, Bennett showed why Friday by shutting down Coppin State's leading scorer Leola Spotwood (5 points on 2 of 8 shooting) when simultaneously creating havoc for Coppin State's other players.

"When she gets out there and spreads her arms, she's like a condor," Six said.

Added Coppin State coach Derek Brown: "She's a WNBA prospect, without a doubt."

Howard's Doyle may get a few pro looks, too. The MEAC's all-time leading scorer, Doyle tallied nearly half the Lady Bison's points (27) and added 10 rebounds in the 55-42 victory over A&T, which is now guided by first-year head coach and former VCU assistant Tarrell Robinson.

This second semifinal played out similarly to the first, as Howard (20-10) broke open a close game with a late second-half spurt. Red-hot 3-point shooting (10 for 21) was pivotal as well.

Now comes the hard part - finding some way to dethrone the Lady Pirates. Odds are the final won't feature a ton of points as both teams rank among Division I's best defensively. Hampton has a greater array of offensive weapons, though, and if two or three of those weapons are firing accurately, we could be looking at something similar to the 67-45 pasting the Lady Pirates handed the Bison on Jan. 28 at Hampton.

Still, the Lady Bison insist that this time, they're ready.

The thing is, when it comes to MEAC Tournament play the past four years, Hampton has always been ready.

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