ERIE, Pa. -- Bentley capped a perfect season by storming back in the final three minutes, closing with a press-fueled 19-5 run to overtake West Texas A&M 73-65, Friday night before 2,151 at the Erie Insurance Arena. The national championship is the first for 917-game winner Barbara Stevens and the Falcon women's basketball program.
"Am I dreaming? Is this real? I can't tell you what a tremendous ride this has been for our coaching staff and our Bentley community with these young ladies," Stevens said. "Proud of them doesn't even begin to describe how I feel. I get emotional when I think of them because we've gone through so much together. They are truly champions. They have been champions in our book from day one."
The seven Bentley seniors and grad students capped their final season 35-0 with three of the seven earning all-tournament honors. Senior power forward Jacqui Brugliera was chosen as the tournament's most outstanding playre and she was joined on the all-tournament team by All-Americas Lauren Battista and Courtney Finn. All three were on the court during the comeback along with classmates Caleigh Crowell and Christiana Bakolas.
The comeback actually began two and a half minutes earlier with the Falcons facing a nine-point deficit, matching the team's biggest of the year with 5:37 to play.
A drive to the basket by Brugliera launched the rally and another inside basket by her made it a 58-53 contest with 4:37 left in the season. Bakolas hit the first of two from the line but West Texas A&M forward Chontiquah White did her one better, sinking a pair for a 60-54 lead with 3:07 to play.Stevens put the press on and things changed rapidly with the Falcons exploding for six unanswered points in 13 seconds to draw even at 60 with 2:47 still to play. Finn made a lay-up, Bakolas stole the inbound pass and fed Battista for another lay-up, and then Bakolas did it again, this time getting fouled while taking the shot herself. She sank both free throws and all of a sudden, the two teams were dead even with 2:47 to play.
The Falcons used the press despite having several in foul trouble.
"We had no choice. They handled it. They handled it very well," Stevens said. "With Lauren and Christiana up front, and Courtney sealing those traps off, and Christiana anticipating the reversal, thankfully Caleigh and Jacqui could stay behind and stay safe. The front line of our press was great."
The Lady Buffs briefly regained the lead with a free throw, but 18 seconds later, after a Brugliera offensive board, Battista drilled a straight-away 3-pointer to put Bentley in front for good, 63-61 to stay with 2:11 remaining. Nine seconds later, the candidate for WBCA Player of the Year honors came up with a steal and took it in for a lay-up and a 65-60 lead.
"The clock was ticking down. Under five (seconds). Under four. We're down by a decent amount," said Battista. "At that point with my career on the line, seven of us really with our careers on the line, the national championship at stake. We need to make big plays."
After two free throws by White interrupted the Bentley run and a Lady Buff rebound of a Brugliera miss, Crowell came up with a steal and that led to a second-chance basket by Bakolas, making it a two-possession game (67-63) as the clock dipped under a minute.
Brugliera took a charge at the other end, one of four for her in the game, and Finn sank two free throws for a six-point lead with 0:41 showing. Two more free throws by Finn with 27.1 seconds made it 71-63 and the national championship was essentially locked up.
The night didn't start out on a positive note as the Falcons scored only three points in the first seven and a half minutes, falling behind by eight. However, the defense picked up after yielding 11 points in the first five minutes, limiting West Texas to just 13 the remainder of the opening stanza.
The two went into the break even at 24 and it remained a one-possession game until a 12-4 Lady Buff run put the Texans up nine, 55-46, with seven minutes left.
Finn led the Falcons with 21 points, including a perfect 12-for-12 at the foul stripe, and also provided four rebounds and four assists. Brugliera followed with 17 on 6 of 10 shooting and four boards, and Battista closed out her career with 14 points, seven rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal.
Bakolas, the late-game hero, provided eight assists, seven points, three rebounds and three steals in 30 turnover-free minutes. Crowell drained a pair of 3-pointers for six points, and the other two who'll be departing after this season, Tyler Parker Kimball and Chrystal Guarin, also stepped when others were sitting due to foul trouble.
Freshman forward Jen Gemma also helped out, finishing with seven rebounds and six points.
Senior post Devin Griffin was a dominant force inside for the 32-3 Lady Buffs as she finished with 20 points (almost all coming in the paint), eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
West Texas held the shooting advantage, 48-40 percent, and both teams hit five triples, but Bentley had the edge in most other categories. The Falcons were a sizzling 22 of 24 from the line (as compared to 14 of 20 for WT), committed three fewer turnovers and had three more rebounds, including a 12-8 edge in offensive.