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Virginia Union falls in NCAA Division II women’s title game

Lady Panthers couldn’t rally to win as they did in semifinal, and lose to unbeaten Ashland, 93-77

Virginia Union, which staged second-half comebacks to knock off second and third seeds and get to Friday’s NCAA Division II women’s national championship game, could not pull it off a third time as it lost to top seed and undefeated Ashland, 93-77.

The Lady Eagles (37-0) were just too efficient and relentless for the sixth-seeded Lady Panthers (28-5) to overcome.

“They’re just an outstanding ball club,” said second-year VUU coach AnnMarie Gilbert of the Eagles, who shot 52.6 percent from the field, 50 percent (11 of 22) from 3-point range and made 20 of 22 free throws to keep VUU at bay.

“We know it’s certainly difficult to go undefeated in a season, let alone culminate with a national championship,” said Gilbert. “They play together as a unit. They’re hard-nosed and don’t take a play off. They’re just a well-oiled machine. Kudos to them on an outstanding season.”

The game was played before a raucous capacity crowd of 2,200, about 2,000 of them rabid Ashland fans who filled the arena at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio, just 82 miles from the school’s Ashland campus.

But VUU did not go down without a fight. Though they never led at the end of any quarter, they battled and took leads both in the first and third quarters and never trailed by double digits until the last play of the third quarter, when Ashland’s Maddie Dackin’s two free throws sent the Lady Eagles into the final quarter up 68-58.

Between the last 1:34 of the third quarter and first 2:21 of the fourth, VUU went scoreless until Alexis Johnson’s 3 cut the lead to 75-61. The 11-3 run all but ended the Lady Panthers’ chances.

VUU’s undoing was its inability to slow down the Eagles, a bevy of misses in close on the offensive end and a 5-of-15 performance from the charity stripe. “All the little things we did for us to get here, we just failed in some of those areas today,” said Gilbert.

Johnson, a talented 6-foot junior forward, led VUU with a game-high 28 points, hitting 12 of 24 shots from the field and 3 of 4 from behind the arc. Six-foot-2 senior center Lady Walker scored 19 points and had a game-high 12 rebounds in her last game in a VUU uniform. Both Johnson and Walker were named to the all-tournament team.

“The ball just wasn’t going into the basket,” said Johnson. “Those are easy shots we usually make, but tonight they just weren’t falling.”

Ashland evenly distributed minutes between eight players and had five score in double figures led by 19 points from freshman Jodi Johnson. Junior Laina Snyder, named the tournament’s most valuable player, added 17 points. AU had 24 assists on 31 made baskets. After posting a 21-18 rebounding edge in the first half, VUU was outrebounded 37-34 for the game.

“We played come-from-behind in the two previous games, but I just knew we couldn’t get down to Ashland,” said Gilbert of the Eagles, who won each of their three games in the Elite Eight by double digits and had not trailed in either of its games. “But we fought. We were never really in it but never totally out of it. But I’m just proud of the statement we made.”

“People know about Virginia Union,” said Gilbert who brought her team back to the Elite Eight for the second straight year. “We are a program on the rise. We’re rebuilding. We’re a program that won a championship in 1983. We’re back.”

“We weren’t that good my first two seasons,” said Walker. “It took for us to get coach G [Gilbert], one of the best coaches in the country, for us to get back here. Since she set foot on the campus of Virginia Union University, that’s been her mindset.”

“It was learning experience,” said Johnson. “We’re just going to come back stronger and learn from our mistakes.”

Carl ‘Lut' Williams is the publisher and editor of the Black College Sports Page.