HICKORY, N.C. -- Limestone (27-5) scored on its opening possession and would not look back from there as it cruised to the program's first NCAA Southeast Regional championship and a trip to the quarterfinals in Erie, Pa., with a dominating 74-55 win against Armstrong Atlantic on Monday at the Shuford Memorial Gymnasium.
The Saints will draw No. 5 West Texas A&M, winners of the South Central Regional with a 60-56 win against Colorado Mesa, in the next round. Limestone and the Lady Buffs will tipoff at noon March 25 at the Erie Insurance Arena.
For a team that may not have gotten into the NCAA tournament without the automatic bid, despite being one of the hottest teams in the region, seventh-seeded Limestone won the Southeast Regional title in convincing fashion with an average margin of victory of 15 points per game. The Saints recorded a 10-point win against defending regional champ Clayton State, a 16-point decision against Belmont Abbey and a 19-point victory against Armstrong Atlantic in the final.
Limestone became the first Conference Carolinas member to ever advance to the women's Elite Eight. The Saints will travel to Erie, Pa. carrying a 14-game win streak.
Freshman guard Jasmine Kearse was named the Southeast Region tournament's most outstanding player after pouring in a game-high 18 points, 14 of which came in the opening half. Juniors Morgan Brown and Alicia Brookins were both named to the all-tournament team.
Brookins finished with a double-double with 12 points and 10 boards while junior center Precilla Hill just missed a double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds. Junior guard Ayshia McNeil knocked down 13 points while Brookins chipped in 12.
A floater in the lane on the opening possession by Kearse got the Saints rolling early as they exploded out of the gate with a 20-4 run in the first 7:46. She poured in seven of her 14 first half points during that stretch while Brookins added six.
More impressively during that run was Limestone's defensive intensity as they limited the Pirates to a 1-for-9 clip from the field to start the game while forcing a pair of turnovers. The Saints held AASU to 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from the floor in the course of the first 20 minutes and forced a total of eight turnovers.
Armstrong Atlantic used their size in the paint to establish some rhythm on offense, closing the gap to 28-14 with 7:02 left, but back-to-back triples from junior forward Celestra Warren and McNeil opened up a 36-14 lead for the Saints a few moments later.
With the score trimmed to 15 following free throws by Armstrong's Brigitta Barta, Kearse capped a 7-0 spurt with a long three to give the Blue and Gold a 43-19 cushion with 29 seconds left in the opening half. Limestone would take a 43-21 lead into the locker room.
Following a layup by Tyler Carson to open the second half for the Pirates, an inside score by freshman forward Amber Wright sparked an 8-0 run to make it a 51-23 game with 17:32 left in regulation. The 28-point advantage would be Limestone's largest of the night.
Barta dropped in a pair of layups for the Pirates before Bryonna Davis nailed a triple from the wing to power a 13-8 counterattack that would close the margin to 59-37 midway through the second half. However, Limestone pushed its lead back to 26 following a 6-2 stretch.
Armstrong Atlantic continued to chip away at the sizable lead, using an 11-2 run in the next 3:40 to pull to within 67-50. Stephanie Coney caught fire during that span, dropping in seven points on a 3-pointer and two buckets in the paint.
McNeil would then tuck the game safely away as an old-fashion three-point play in the final minute sent the Saints into celebration mode with the 74-55 win.
Limestone blistered the nets to a tune of 50.8 percent for the game on 33 of 65 shooting. The Blue and Gold went 5-for-11 (45.5 percent) from behind the arc and turned 15 Pirate turnovers into a 20-8 advantage in points going the other way. The Saints finished with a 39-35 margin on the boards.
Barta paced Armstrong Atlantic with 17 points while Coney and Davis added 10 apiece.