Conference basketball tournament season, in addition to providing the sudden sad endings described in my previous post, gives new life to others.
One of my favorite assignments each year is the South Atlantic Conference basketball tournament in Hickory, a gathering of the four semifinalists in the men’s and women’s brackets. (As I’ve written before in this blog, a basketball tournament is a wonderful thing — I think get equal enjoyment from watching a game and anticipating the next one. It’s why don’t enjoy the increasingly numerous “campus sites” tourmaments, where the quarterfinals are played in four different places at the same time, and so on.)
It’s especially enjoyable for me when I can watch some of my students from Wingate University in action, though I always strictly adhere to the “no cheering in the press box” rule. Both Wingate teams were here for the second straight year. And both came with a sense of unfinished business, having lost in the championship game last year.
Semifinals day is a marathon which starts at noon and generally ends about 10 hours later, if all goes according to schedule. The first game always seems to bring something special for those who can get there in time for it. This time it was a double-overtime shootout. No. 1 seed Anderson had a struggle, but ousted No. 4 seed Newberry 113-106. The Wolves play a helter-skelter game brrought by their coach, David Davis, from his previous position at Pfeiffer. But Anderson showed they could play it too. Senior guard Denzail Jones went off for 50 points, shattering the tournament single-game scoring record with a 21-for-31 afternoon from the field.
No. 3-seed Wingate and No.2 Lincoln Memorial gave fans some free basketball too, going to overtime before the Bulldogs beat the Railsplitters (best nickname in the conference), 64-60.
It looked like Wingate was headed for their second straight tournament loss to Lincoln Memorial — the two teams met in last year’s championship game — as they trailed 44-31 with less than 9 minutes to play.
But, in a mirror image of that 2011 tournament game,the Bulldogs battled back behind 16 points from Paidrick Matilus, including a three-pointer with 1:21 left in regulation to send the game to the extra period.
No such comeback was needed in the championship game against Anderson on Sunday. Senior guard Jaime Vaughn, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, got 18 points — 14 in the second half — as Wingate led from start to finish in a 66-59 victory. It meant that the Bulldogs had completed a tournament sweep of teams that they went 0-4 against in the regular season.
“We knew we had come up short against these teams before,” Vaughn said. “We wanted it to come out different this time,”
And it gave Wingate’s Brian Good his first NCAA Division II tournament bid in four seasons as coach of the Bulldogs, after taking Queens to two NCAA tournaments in four seasons there. His team has won 10 of its last 11 going into this weekend’s NCAA opener against USC-Aiken in Montevallo, Ala.
Unlike the men’s team, the Wingate women had a tournament bid wrapped up going into the SAC semifinals, having won more than 20 games on the way to a regular-season championship. But a loss in last year’s championship game to Tusculum had obviously stuck with these Bulldogs.
“We were pretty sure we were in, but wanted to win the tournament and make it legitimate,” Bulldogs coach Barbara Nelson said.
And in their two games, they left little doubt, dispatching No. 5 seed Carson-Newman 66-49 in the semifinals and having an even easier time with No. 2-seed Catawba in the final, taking a 65-41 win. Wingate’s Nikki Burton, a sophomore guard from Charlotte, scored 26 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had 7 assists for the weekend on the way to a tournament MVP selection.
Was there a little mojo carried over from the Wingate men’s championship for the women? Nelson thought so, but called it something else.
“There’s some karma there,” said Nelson, who’s taking a Wingate team to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Her first Wingate team reached the Elite Eight in 2009.
“These two teams are close. Last year we watched them lose the men’s championship game, then we lost. This time they won, and I think their good play carried over for us.”