By Steve Keenan
For The Register-Herald
Following a seven-win showing a year ago, things were surely looking up for the WVU Tech women this season as they gained confidence weekly and compiled a 15-13 regular season record.
And the turnaround got even sweeter Sunday when the No. 2 Golden Bears trimmed No. 1 seed Robert Morris (Ill.) College 74-71 to capture the championship of the Association of Independent Institutions and secure the accompanying automatic berth in the NAIA Division I National Tournament at the Frankfort (Ky.) Convention Center March 13-18.
The Tech women’s program last advanced to the NAIA tournament in the 2006-07 season after coach Reggie Carrick’s squad won the Mid-South Conference’s automatic bid by capturing the postseason tournament.
“All the credit to Robert Morris,” said winning coach Jenna Everhart. “They have a great team and a great staff.
“Beating them is a great achievement for us.”
Tech sophomore guard Nia Nolan, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, said her team felt like it had something to prove Sunday.
“We were the underdogs,” said Nolan, who scored 14 points and passed out five assists Sunday. “They took us lightly. They didn’t even come and scout us until the end of our game (Saturday).
“I want to cry, I want to jump, I’m just so happy.”
Senior Amy Gardner buried a long 3-point goal from the right wing to hand the Bears a 73-68 margin with 38.8 seconds to go, then Robert Morris got a deuce off a drive by Celeste Jones to pull to within 73-70 with 30 seconds remaining. After a Tech turnover, the Eagles got a foul shot from Ashley Segers to creep to within two, 73-71, but the Eagles then missed a chance to tie on a putback with 10 seconds left.
That’s when Tech reserve Dee Hawkins stepped in and made 1 of 2 free throws to put Tech up 74-71. Robert Morris missed a shot at the buzzer and Tech walked away with the win.
“This is unreal,” said Tech senior Amber Tully, who scored 18 points on the strength of 5-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc, with three of the treys occurring in the game’s final 12:57 as the Bears maintained control. “I can’t breathe.” She credited “our intensity” as the key to victory. “I think we wanted it more.”
With Tech up 60-56, Tully buried a 3-pointer and Tracee Mitchel got a free throw and a deuce in the lane to push the margin to 66-56 with 6:01 left. Robert Morris later whittled the deficit to one, 66-65, on a deuce by Mary Colon on an inbound play.
The 3-point shooting in the game’s latter stages was preceded by Nolan and senior Courtney Sturdivant helping the Bears crank up their transition game, which, in turn, opened up the outside for the shooters.
“Tonight I was more of a scoring threat and that made things more open (on the wings),” said Nolan.
“We’re not one-dimensional,” said Everhart. On a good night, the outside game, the transition game and play on the interior come together and makes Tech “difficult to guard,” the coach said.
Former Westside standout Cheyanna Lusk, one of Tech’s top reserves as a freshman, scored four points and grabbed seven rebounds to help the winning cause.
“Tonight we all wanted it so bad,” said Lusk, an integral part of Westside’s 2012 state championship team. “We left it all out on the floor.”
Lusk made both ends of a one-and-one situation with 1:22 to play to give Tech some breathing room at 70-65.
“It was too close for my liking,“ said a relieved Gardner, who missed her first six 3-pointers before making the crucial one in the closing seconds. “Last year, we didn’t pull (games) out in the end; this year we can do that.”
Sturdivant, the A.I.I. women’s player of the year, led her team with 21 points and six assists, despite having to miss stretches of time due to back spasms.
Jones scored 15 and Uniqua Hampton 14 for Robert Morris (19-13).
Tech used a 9-0 spurt in the closing stages of the first half to move into a 37-25 lead, and the margin ballooned to 40-26 on a Sturdivant free throw with 1:03 left.
“It was two good teams playing each other,” said RM coach John Natanek. “West Virginia Tech built an early lead and we got ourselves in a hole.” He said the home-court advantage may have given Tech “a little extra” and pushed them over the edge.
WVU Tech (17-13)
Nia Nolan 5-8 2-3 14, Amber Tully 5-17 3-4 18, Courtney Sturdivant 8-15 4-5 21, Amy Gardner 1-10 0-0 3, Roche Wimberly 1-5 0-0 2, Dee Hawkins 0-0 1-2 1, Cheyanna Lusk 1-4 2-2 4, Tracee Mitchel 2-2 3-4 7, Mashya White 2-3 0-0 4. Totals: 25-64 15-20 74.
Robert Morris (19-13)
Celeste Jones 6-19 2-5 15, Ashley Segers 1-7 3-4 5, Ashley Collins 0-4 4-4 4, Yolanda De La Torre 5-7 3-4 13, Uniqua Hampton 6-14 0-0 14, Danish Cole 2-7 3-5 7, Aubrey Sparrey 1-2 0-0 3, Mary Colon 2-7 4-4 10, Nicole Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Renee Reed 0-2 0-0 0. Totals: 23-69 19-26 71.
WVT 40 34 — 74
RM 29 42 — 71
3-point goals — WVT: 9-24 (Nolan 2-3, Tully 5-11, Sturdivant 1-2, Gardner 1-7, Lusk 0-1) RM: 6-25 (Jones 1-9, Segers 0-1, Collins 0-1, Hampton 2-4, Cole 0-2, Sparrey 1-2, Colon 2-4, Reed 0-2). Fouled out — None.