AIKEN, S.C. — It’s official — Lander is among the nation’s elite.
The Lady Bearcats earned their first trip to the Elite Eight, outlasting Wingate 72-67 in double overtime on Monday night in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Lander (24-7) advances to play in the national quarterfinals to be played March 20-21, and 23 in San Antonio, Texas.
Regional MVP Brittni Johnson played the entire 50 minutes, including 40 minutes of regulation and two five-minute overtime periods, and led the Lady Bearcats with 20 points, including two 3-pointers in the second overtime, and six assists.
Kaylyn Small posted a double-double with 19 points and a career-high 22 rebounds. She also had four blocked shots in 35 minutes of action.
Jasmine Judge also played the entire 50 minutes, scoring 13 points for the Lady Bearcats. Ciara Lyons scored 12 points and Precious Elkins added 11 boards for Lander, which outrebounded Wingate 53-52.
Nikki Burton led Wingate (24-8) with 21 points, Simone Rutledge added 12 points, and Tish Logan grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds.
Both teams struggled shooting. Lander made 27 of 71 shots from the floor (38 percent), seven of 27 from 3-point range (26 percent) and 11 of 14 from the free-throw line (79 percent).
Wingate made 25 of 80 from the floor (31 percent), 12 of 18 free throws (67 percent) and five of 17 from behind the arc (29 percent).
Lander had a 13-point lead midway through the second half of regulation and twice built four-point leads in the first overtime only to see the Lady Bulldogs rally each time.
Tied at 60 going into double overtime, Johnson hit a 3-pointer to give the Lady Bearcats the lead in the first minute. But Burton scored twice, giving Wingate a 64-63 advantage with three minutes to go, their first lead since the opening half.
Small scored inside for Lander, but the Lady Bulldogs tied it at 65 with one of two free throws.
Johnson hit another huge three, this one from the left wing to give the Lady Bearcats the lead for good at 68-65 at the 1:25 mark.
Burton would make a layup to pull Wingate within one. But with the shot clock winding down, Lyons made an acrobatic shot in the lane to restore Lander’s three-point lead with 20 seconds left.
Burton tried to rally the Bulldogs again, but she missed a shot and Judge was fouled with six-tenths of a second left and added two free throws.
As the final buzzer went off, the exhausted Lady Bearcats were able to celebrate their first Elite Eight appearance, and would eventually cut down the nets.
They had reason to be exhausted.
The Lady Bearcats pushed their lead to five when Mukia Myrick found Small inside for a basket and a 52-47 lead just under the four-minute mark.
But Lander committed two offensive fouls and Wingate one offensive foul in the next three possessions. The Lady Bearcats, however, built a seemingly safer lead when Small rebounded a Wingate missed shot, was fouled, and made two free throws for a 54-47 lead.
But Janitsha Williams scored to pull the Bulldogs within 54-49 with 1:36 left and Lander committed two turnovers, each resulting in a foul as Burton made three of four free throws to cut it to 54-52 at the one-minute mark.
Johnson missed a jumper with 30 seconds left, giving Wingate an opportunity to tie or win. Burton missed a shot in the lane, but the rebound went out of bounds off a Lander player. Then, with 10 seconds left, Williams made a game-tying shot to make it 54-all.
Lander had a chance to win in regulation, inbounding the ball under their own goal with 10 seconds left, but turned the ball over at the other end.
The first overtime was just as wild. The Lady Bearcats scored six of the first eight points on a Small basket, Johnson free throws, and a Lyons bucket to lead 60-56. But Rutledge scored inside and Burton made two free throws for a 60-all tie.
Small had a steal, giving Lander a chance to retake the lead. But after a wild scramble for a loose ball, the Lady Bearcats turned it back over, and Wingate had a chance to win it with 19 seconds left. But Burton dribbled the ball outside the circle for several seconds, and drove inside the arc and took a shot as time was expiring. She missed off the left side of the rim, sending the game into double overtime.
Both teams started slowly as Lander was 2-for-11 from the floor and 0-for-6 from 3-point range over the game’s first six minutes, and trailed 6-4.
But the Lady Bearcats ran off 10 unanswered points to take a 14-6 lead. A Lyons back-court steal and layup tied it at 6-all at the 13:44 mark, Small scored inside, Myrick made a driving layup, Lyons hit a mid-range jumper, and Lyons scored again on a fast-break layup off one-touch passes from Johnson and Myrick for a 14-6 lead at the 11-minute mark.
Wingate also started slowly and was 3-for-19 from the floor before finally ending the 10-0 run on Chantal Dunbar’s basket.
Judge hit Lander’s first and only 3-pointer of the first half, extending the lead to 19-8. Small’s basket gave the Lady Bearcats the largest lead of the first half at 12 points, 25-13, with 7:40 to go.
But Lander went 0-for-5 and committed two turnovers over their next several possessions. Wingate took advantage, rallying within 25-19 with four minutes left when Rutledge scored three baskets in a row.
Myrick ended the Lady Bearcat scoring drought with a stop-and-go move to the basket for a layup, and Small rebounded a Lander 3-point attempt air ball, converting a layup for a double-figure lead again at 29-19 with 1:24 to go.
The Lady Bearcats led 31-21 at halftime despite going 1-for-13 from 3-point range. But Lander was much more effective than the Bulldogs inside the arc, making 13 of 21 shots while Wingate was 9-for-27. The Bulldogs were 10-for-33 overall before halftime.
Wingate rallied early in the second half, using a 10-2 run to pull within 33-31 with 16:31 left. Tiffany Brown, who missed about 14 minutes of the first half due to injury, hit two threes during the run.
But Judge and Johnson hit threes, pushing Lander’s lead to 39-31 with 15 minutes left.
After Wollett scored off the glass for Wingate, Johnson provided an answer with a three from the left wing and a base-line jumper for a 44-35 lead at the 11:30 mark.
The Lady Bearcats got a huge possession when Elkins missed two free throws, but rebounded her second miss, passed the ball out to Judge for a 3-pointer and a 48-37 lead at the midway point of the second half. Elkins hit one of two free throws to match Lander’s largest lead of the game at 12 points, 49-37, at the 9:13 mark.
Small made one of two free throws to give the Lady Bearcats their largest lead of the game at 50-37 with 8:23 left. But Kelli Bonner’s quick three pulled Wingate within 50-40 with 8:09 remaining.
Burton’s steal and fast-break layup closed the Bulldogs within single digits at 50-42 at the 6:40 mark. After a Lander turnover, Wingate had a chance to cut into its deficit even more but missed a layup. But after the Bulldogs blocked a shot, Burton scored in the paint to cut it to 50-44 with 5:24 to go.
After another Lady Bearcats turnover, Wingate pulled within a possession on Wollett’s first 3-pointer of the game, capping a 7-0 run and setting the stage for the wild finish.