In the under-appreciated and often unfairly ignored world of Division II, March Madness starts a little early.
It came bearing a lively evening’s entertainment to Cuddy Arena at Wingate University on the last day of February, with a men’s and women’’s South Atlantic Conference tournament quarterfinal doubleheader on Wednesday night.
Wingate’s women, ranked No. 21 nationally, defeated Newberry 65-42 and the men took a rousing 76-75 overtime victory over Coker. Both will advance to Saturday’s semifinal games in Greenville, S.C.
Some observations on a good night to be a Bulldog:
*“If you don’t go after it, you’re not going to get it, so give it a try.” — Wingate women’s coach Ann Hancock. *
It’s rebounding that the Bulldogs’ coach, herself a star player and sharpshooter on Wingate College teams of the late Eighties and early Nineties was talking about.
A 53-28 advantage on the boards was a key to No. 2-seeded Wingate (24-4) rolling to its third victory of the season over the No. 7-seeded Wolves. The Bulldogs, led by guard Caroline Averette’s 15 points, including 6-of-9 shooting from the field, led from start to finish.
Wingate won on a night when it didn’t get its best game from its best player. 6-foot-4 center Marta Miscenko, a Latvian-born transfer from Texas-El Paso, was named the SAC Women’s Player of the Year on Thursday. A collapsing Newberry defense limited her to 4 points — about 12 below her average — on 1-for-7 shooting from the field.
But the Bulldogs responded with what seems like the rarest of commodities in modern college basketball — an effective mid-range shooting game, led by Averette. Forward Danasia Witherspoon scored 12 points and guard Courtney Robinson added 10.
“We don’t always want to settle for jump shots, but we responded well and hit some big shots when we needed them,” Hancock said.
And then there were those rebounds. Witherspoon led the way with 13, including 10 on the offensive boards. And her total of 11 at halftime matched Newberry’s team total for the first 20 minutes. Jasmine Stephen added 8 and Miscenko 7 for Wingate. At the end of the third quarter every player who had seen action for Wingate had at least one.
“That’s been a focus for us and everybody’s been involved,” Hancock said.
A couple of notes on Newberry, which is known around the conference for its Antipodean pipeline — Coach Sean Page and half of his 16-player roster hail from Australia.
The other thing that the Wolves are usually known for is deadly three-point shooting, which wasn’t in evidence on Wednesday. Newberry hit only 3-of-16 from behind the arc.
So the Bulldogs, in search of their third straight tournament championship and fourth in five seasons, move on to play No. 3 seed Anderson at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals at Furman University.
“I’m happy for us to have a chance to win another championship,” Hancock said.
“It was just a rag-tag ugly game. There were two teams who wanted to win one more game. And we made one more play than they did.” — Wingate men’s coach Brian Good.
The season has had a different trajectory for the Bulldogs’ men’s team (15-14) which had neither won nor lost more than three in a row going into Wednesday’s game.
And No. 4-seeded Wingate launched a one-game winning streak with a hard-fought one-point win which featured 15 lead changes and 10 ties.
It was made all the more challenging for the Bulldogs, already on a short bench, when starting guard Zeriq Lolar was lost for the rest of the game with a foot injury after playing just eight minutes.
Quantra Taylor’s only basket of the game, a buzzer-beating layup, gave Wingate a 35-33 halftime lead. But the Cobras (12-17) went on a 12-0 run early in the second half to take an 11-point lead with 14 minutes and 40 seconds left in the game.
It was a good example, as Good described it, of basketball’s unending chain of causation. (My term, not his….)
“We committed some turnovers which led to some more turnovers, which led to some bad defense, which led to some bad offense,” he said.
Yet the Bulldogs were able to turn things around.
A pair of big free throws by 6-foot-7 senior forward Devarious Christian – who led Wingate with 16 points and 10 rebounds – with 21 seconds to play gave the Bulldogs a 69-67 lead. But Coker’s Khalil Halls, who led all scorers with 27 points (5 three-pointers), sent the game to overtime with a tip-in with 12 seconds left. It was the Cobras’ only field goal in the last four minutes of regulation.
The extra period was pretty much the first 40 minutes of the game writ small, with Wingate guard Emarius Logan getting the winning points on a jump shot with 22 seconds left. A turnover for each team, a miss by Coker’s Smalls in the last two seconds and it was all over.
Wingate advances to a 5 p.m. semifinal game Saturday against the No. 1-ranked Division II team in the country, the Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters (27-1 and quite possibly the No. 1-ranked nickname in the country).
It’s an opportunity for the Bulldogs, and it’s not unprecedented for a team on the men’s side of this tournament to come from obscurity and make a little noise. What would it take for Wingate to be that team, I asked Good. (The Bulldogs haven’t won the tournament since taking back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.)
Using an analogy familiar to regular March Madness watchers, he said he didn’t consider his team like a 16-seed tilting at a No. 1 with no chance to win.
“It’s more like a 3-14 game, an upset you know has happened before,” he said. “We have to have confidence that we can compete and you just have to ask yourself, ‘Why not us?’”