ERIE, Pa. -- The Bentley seniors looked at each with six minutes left, facing a nine-point deficit.
They couldn't let their illustrious careers end without a national championship.
The Falcons used a ferocious press and defensive pressure to rally for a 73-65 win against West Texas A&M in the NCAA Division II championship Friday in front of 2,151 fans at Erie Insurance Arena.
Top-ranked Bentley features seven seniors, including two graduate students that came back to make one final run. The special group capped a perfect season at 35-0 and the program's first national championship. It was also only the second national title in all Bentley sports along with the 2001 field hockey team.
The seniors spent the past four years growing together and battling through different scenarios, including games they weren't expected to win.
“The last five minutes of this game reminded me of when we were sophomores and trailed Wayne State (Neb.) by 19 with 13 minutes left in the NCAA tournament,” Bentley senior leader Lauren Battista said. “They were the No. 1 team in the country and we went to our press back then. We shocked them and won the game and the press worked the same way [Friday]. Coach Hunt [Dan Hunt, an assistant] said to us in a timeout that we were down eight with four minutes left and it was just like any other day in practice. We just needed the confidence to get the job done.”Seniors Caleigh Crowell, Jacqui Brugliera and Christiana Bakolas all had four fouls, but all four stayed on the floor to help with the press. The Falcons trailed 58-49 with 5 minutes, 38 seconds left before the turnovers started coming with the press.
The Falcons kept at it as the pressure increased and Bentley went from a 60-54 deficit to a tie game in a matter of 18 seconds. Bentley then took care of business at the free-throw line to secure school history.
The group of seniors have influenced one of the most successful programs in the country from the minute they stepped on to campus. In four years, the class went 124-11, including 96-6 in the past three years. They went to three Elite Eights and reached the Round of 16 in every season.
“I know we've said this all year as a group, but even when we aren't playing our best, we never think we are going to lose,” Brugliera said. “We never say 'oh this is bad' and start giving up. We have confidence in ourselves and pull it together eventually and win the game. Once we were down by so much and had nothing to lose, we played more free and loose and knew we had to play our best the rest of the game or else we'd lose.”
Bentley owns NCAA Division II records in wins with 964, tournament appearances with 31, tournament games with 92 and tournament wins at 59.
While the program has been successful for decades, it was always missing a national title. The Falcons' only appearance came in 1990, a 77-43 loss to Delta State at Cal Poly Pomona.
“With six minutes left and we were down nine, we looked at each other and knew we had to give it everything we had,” said Courtney Finn, a graduate student. “We had our backs against the wall and nothing to lose at that point. We had six minutes left in our career and had to do something.”
All seven seniors contributed to the win. Brugliera scored 17 points and contained the strong West Texas forwards to be named tournament most outstanding player. Finn scored 21 points and Battista had 14 points and seven rebounds as the two All-Americans were named to the all-tournament team. Crowell scored six points in 25 quality minutes, while Bakolas had seven points and eight assists to go with crucial steals during the rally. Chrystal Guarin came off the bench to play 10 solid minutes and Tyler Parker Kimball gave the starters a breather with four tough minutes.
The rally gave the Falcons the title and it also capped the list of accomplishments for longtime coach Barbara Stevens. She is the winningest coach in Division II history with 760 wins and has 917 overall in 37 years.
“I can't tell you what a tremendous ride this has been for our coaching staff and the Bentley community,” Stevens said. “What a ride for these young ladies and proud of them doesn't begin to describe how I feel. We've gone through so much together and they are truly champions.”