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Virginia Union Lady Panthers playing for all the Division II basketball glory

A big second-half comeback gets the CIAA power into national title game vs. top seed Ashland University

Virginia Union University roared back from a double-digit first-half deficit to knock off California Baptist University, 86-81, in Wednesday’s semifinal game of the NCAA Division II women’s basketball tournament in Columbus, Ohio. Next stop? The national championship.

The Lady Panthers (28-4), champion of the tournament’s Atlantic Region, will take on undefeated and top-seeded Ashland University (36-0) in Friday’s 7 p.m. championship game live on the CBS Sports Network.

Just as they showed in their quarterfinals win over Columbus State University earlier this week, it was the second half that made all the difference for the sixth-seeded Lady Panthers, who outscored the Lady Lancers, 47-33, after halftime despite trailing, 48-39, at the break.

Senior Ashley Smith, playing off the bench as she has all season, was the catalyst, as the 5-foot-5 guard darted in and around the Cal Baptist defense. She went for 20 of her game- and career-high 28 points in the second half to fuel the comeback. She also had five rebounds, three steals and two assists.

“Our defense was spurred by Ashley Smith, one of the smallest kids on our team with the biggest heart,” said victorious second-year Virginia Union head coach AnnMarie Gilbert. “I’m just so proud that they took the adjustments. They took the hard coaching and finished this game in first-class fashion.”

Smith, who started only two games in the regular season, spent most of her time playing behind Virginia Union and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) scoring leader, junior guard Brittany Jackson (18.4 points per game), who has not played since Virginia Union lost in the CIAA tournament semifinals. Gilbert dismissed Jackson from the team following the CIAA tournament, so it’s now Smith who is the Lady Panthers’ key weapon from the guard position.

Virginia Union’s frontcourt stalwarts, 6-foot-2 senior Lady Walker and 6-foot junior Alexis Johnson, controlled the paint against Cal Baptist. Walker was unstoppable inside with 18 points and a game-high 19 rebounds. Johnson scored 20 points and pulled down nine boards. Walker and Johnson, along with freshman guard Kishona Sutton’s nine boards, spurred the Lady Panthers to a 68-39 edge off the glass and 56-24 advantage in points in the paint.

Point guard Rejoice Spivey, who had a crucial basket that put Virginia Union ahead by three points, 82-79, with just under a minute left, led the Lady Panthers with five assists.

Cal Baptist (35-3), champion of the Big West Conference and the tournament’s West Region, entered the semifinal game on a 32-game winning streak. The Lady Lancers broke from a 5-5 tie early to go ahead by as much as 12 before settling in with a 32-26 lead at the end of the first quarter. Cal Baptist led, 48-39, at the half.

The Lady Panthers, after a good halftime talking-to by Gilbert, stormed out of the break with a 10-2 run, six of those points coming from Smith, to get back within 50-49, prompting a Cal Baptist timeout. The Lady Lancers, who hit nine 3-pointers in the first half, seven in the first quarter to grab the early lead, misfired on nine of their first 10 shots in the third period, including four misses from 3-point range, to open the door for the comeback.

“We had to come together as a team and play defense,” Smith said of her team’s mindset coming out of the break. “It was really hard to play defense on them because they’re shooters. But, I’m glad we came together.”

Virginia Union kept the pressure on and finally took its first lead since early in the game when Walker cashed in the first of two free throws with 1:49 left in the third quarter to go ahead, 58-57. Walker’s layup basket with three seconds left sent the Lady Panthers into the final period with a 62-60 lead.

Cal Baptist’s shooters started to find the range in the final period. The Lady Lancers took their first second-half lead at 67-66 as Courtney Nelson, who finished with a team-high 24 points, canned her third 3-pointer with 6:40 to play. After Johnson tied the game at 67 on a free throw, Nelson would get another 3-pointer to give the Lancers a 70-67 edge. After a Walker jumper cut the lead to 70-69, Nelson hit her third-straight trey to put Cal Baptist ahead, 73-69, with 4:52 left.

Smith drained two free throws before Nelson’s teammate Cassidy Mihalko got in on the action with a 3 of her own to give the Lancers a 76-71 lead with 4:10 left. A basket by Smith followed by a free throw and layup by Johnson tied the score at 76 before Nelson hit her sixth and final 3-pointer of the night to give Cal Baptist a 79-76 lead with 2:32 to play.

Smith came right back 14 seconds later to drive for a layup and pull Virginia Union within one point, 79-78. After Nelson missed on a drive to the basket, Johnson put Virginia Union ahead for good at 80-79 on a 12-foot jumper from the right side with 1:45 left. Nelson misfired on a 3-pointer, Virginia Union rebounded it and worked the clock down before Spivey drove left across the lane and put in the clutch left-handed layup to give Virginia Union a 82-79 lead with just under a minute to play.

Mihalko missed on a layup attempt with 47 seconds left. The Lady Panthers brought the ball up but turned it over in the frontcourt with 27.5 seconds left, giving Cal Baptist what would be its final chance. But Kamille Diaz, with a clear path to the basket, missed a layup attempt. Johnson rebounded and passed to Smith, who was fouled and sank both free throws with 20 seconds left for a 84-79 margin. Diaz scored the Lancers’ final points on a layup with 14 seconds to go. Walker’s free throw with three seconds left provided the final margin.

“First, I just want to thank my team for believing in me,” Smith said. “My coach told me to keep driving. I’m quick out there. She told me to keep driving and that’s what I did.”

Asked how she feels entering the championship game, Smith said, “I’m so at a loss for words right now. You don’t understand. Me, being a senior, I’m just shaking right now. I just can’t wait.

“I’m ready to fight.”

Virginia Union made it to last year’s quarterfinals in Gilbert’s first season as coach, but lost to Bentley University, 53-52. The Lady Panthers won a Division II national title in 1983 under head coach Louis Hearn.

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