By Dan Caldwell
Special to NCAA.com

NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Fairleigh Dickinson senior Erica Perez knocked over the last three pins standing in a long, tense match and quickly became the centerpiece of a jubilant celebration Saturday night. For the second time in two days, the Knights had beaten Nebraska, the defending champion, this time to win the NCAA Women's Bowling Championship.

Fairleigh Dickinson, a university of 6,000 students in Teaneck, N.J., about 45 miles north of the Brunswick Zone Carolier Lanes, the championship site, won its first championship since 2006 by taking the last two games of a nerve-racking, best-of-seven series that lasted more than 2 1/2 hours. The Knights (87-38) had won the sixth game to force a deciding game.

It was fitting that Perez capped a 208-174 victory in the seventh game. She is from Carteret, N.J., not much more than 10 miles from Brunswick Zone Carolier Lanes. She was a senior in high school the last time the Knights won the national title, beating Alabama A&M, and she was determined to win another before she left FDU.

"It was a perfect ending to a dream come true," Perez said after only the second seven-game match in the seven-year history of the tournament.

The Cornhuskers stumbled only a little in the seventh game, finishing with two open frames - one by the senior Cassandra Leuthold, Nebraska's most accomplished bowler. Fairleigh Dickinson did not have an open frame and rolled to victory behind six strikes, two apiece from junior Tracy Ganjoin and sophomore Joely Carrillo.

"Surprisingly, there wasn't too much pressure," Carrillo said.

Fairleigh Dickinson pushed Nebraska into the loser's bracket Friday by surprising the Cornhuskers in a second-round match, four games to two. While Fairleigh Dickinson rolled into the championship match by defeating archrival New Jersey City for the second time Friday, Nebraska had to avoid elimination by beating Vanderbilt, then Arkansas State twice.

The second meeting was early Saturday afternoon. Nebraska won the first two games - the second by just eight pins - before Arkansas State won the third game. The Cornhuskers then won two of the next three games, the sixth by 185-165, to earn a spot in the championship match for the fourth time in the last seven years. They had won the first three title matches.

"We've had a little bit of experience before," Leuthold said.

Brunswick Zone Carolier Lanes, a colossal 82-lane facility anchoring a sprawling strip shopping center next to U.S. Route 1, was reconfigured for the championship match. Long sets of bleachers, each of 10 rows, were set in an L shape near lanes 7 and 8. The lanes were bathed in TV lights, and fans found seats well before Saturday night's match began.

The crowd did not need much prompting from an ESPN engineer to make lots of noise before the first match. Every bowler on each team stood in a pack at the back of each alley. Nebraska coach Bill Straub, in a short-sleeve shirt and tie, sat in a chair next to the Cornhuskers. FDU coach Mike LoPresti, in a gray suit, stood with his team.

The Baker system, in which a team's five bowlers rotate through frames, was used to determine the champion. The crowd was decidedly pro-FDU, an enormous boost to the Knights, though Straub said it would not have been a factor if Nebraska had won. Straub said, "There's no team that plays closer to its potential than Mike LoPresti's team."

The first game in the best-of-seven series was even until Nebraska left the seventh and eighth frames open. Meanwhile, Fairleigh Dickinson rolled two strikes. The Knights went on to win the game comfortably, 209-167. Fairleigh Dickinson lost the first game against Nebraska on Friday, 221-167, prompting LoPresti to tell his bowlers to use different balls to adapt to the lanes.

Nebraska won the next two games Saturday, then won the fifth game, 222-201, after Fairleigh Dickinson tied the series. Kristina Mickelson, a sophomore who entered the match in the second game, rolled two strikes, as did Vickie Calberry, a Canadian. Nebraska was poised to win another title, but FDU would counter, saving its best for last.

"What a privilege everyone had here tonight," LoPresti said. "This was, in my opinion, the best NCAA match ever."