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Virgina Union carries HBCU mantle into D2 Elite 8

BCSP Editor
Nineteen (19) black college basketball teams – ten men’s squads and nine from the women’s side – entered post-conference tournament play about two weeks ago seeking national titles. Only one has survived. The Lady Panthers of Virginia Union (28-2), after winning tournament championships in the CIAA and in the NCAA Div. II Atlantic Region, continued their quest for the women’s Div. II national championship Tuesday, March 22 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

That’s where they faced East Region champion Bentley (28-5) at 3:30 p.m. in the Elite Eight, the national quarterfinals. A win Tuesday would put VUU in the national semifinals on Wednesday, March 22 vs. South Central Region titleist Lubbock Christian (32-0), who defeated South Region champ Florida Southern 73-69 in Tuesday’s 12 noon game. The women’s Div. II national championship game is not to be played until 12 days later on April 4 in Indianapolis. Because the 2015–16 season is the 25th in which the NCAA has sponsored national championships in women’s basketball, the Division II and Division III championship games will be held at the site of this year’s Division I Final Four at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

First-year head coach Ann Marie Gilbert, 5-6 transfer senior point guard Kiana Johnson, recently named the NCAA Div. II player of the year, and a pair of 6-2 twin towers, junior Lady Walker and senior Taylor White, are leading the Lady Panthers in their championship quest. Gilbert, the former head coach at Div. I Eastern Michigan, has deftly guided the squad from the bench, mixing in a three-quarter court 2-2-1 press with a 2-3 half court zone defense to keep teams off balance. The team scores 85.0 points per game, second best in the nation.

On offense, the show belongs to Johnson, the former three-year starter at point guard at Big 10 power Michigan State, who leads the nation in scoring at 29.3 points per game and is second in assists at 8.7 per game. Those stats alone are deadly. But what makes Johnson an even bigger threat is that she shoots 46.2% from the field, 41.3% from behind the arc and hits 82.7% of her free throws.

The indefatigable Johnson also is third nationally in steals at 4.17 per game while playing 38.27 minutes per game, seventh highest in the nation. Johnson has had five 40-plus-point games this season, four in the last 12 games and two in the postseason including a season-best 49 points in the Atlantic Region final vs. West Liberty on March 14. That output broke the women’s Div. II playoffs single-game scoring mark. She is averaging 34.6 points per game since the postseason began.

Walker is a double-double machine. She scores 18.2 points per game and is third in the NCAA at 13.2 rebounds per game. She is tied for fifth nationally with 20 double-doubles in 30 games. Johnson has 14 double-doubles of points and assists Walker’s counterpart, White, puts in 9.0 points per game and pulls down 10.2 rebounds per game. Both Walker and White shoot 53% from the floor.

Bentley won the Northeast-10 Tournament championship before taking the East Region title over New York Tech (79-74). Bentley, under head coach Barbara Stevens, is led by 6-0 junior center Jennifer Gemma, who like Johnson was selected to the WBCA all-America team. Gemma averages 19.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Six-foot freshman guard Megan Lewis (10.0 ppg.) and 5-9 sophomore guard Lauren Green (9.8 ppg.) are the next highest scorers.

VUU will be trying to win its second NCAA Div. II women’s national title and fourth for the CIAA (see STAT CORNER). The 1983 Virginia Union squad coached by the late Lou Hearn with star players Paris McWhirter and Barvenia Wooten (now Wooten-Cherry) captured that year’s title over Cal Poly Pomona (73-60). Gilbert replaced Wooten-Cherry this year as VUU’s head coach. VUU returned to the title game the following year (1984) but fell to Central Missouri (70-63).

Black college teams, in fact, played in the first three NCAA Div. II championship games. Tuskegee, out of the SIAC, reached the Div. II championship game in 1982, the first year of the championship. The Lady Tigers fell to Cal Poly Pomona (93-74) in the title game. Hampton, then playing in the CIAA and Div. II under head coach James Sweat before moving to the MEAC and Div. I, took the 1988 title over West Texas A&M (65-48). Shaw out of the CIAA, under head coach Jacques Curtis, defeated Ashland 88-82 for the 2012 crown.

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