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CIAA Basketball Tournament

Virginia Union women and Virginia State men crowned champions

Panthers’ Shareka McNeill emerges as a star; Shaw’s Amir Hinton gets his but Bears lose

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament had the North and South No. 1 seeds on display for the men’s and women’s championship games, but the North Division schools are the ones headed to the NCAA tournament.

Virginia Union University (27-2) won in a 74-41 rout over Fayetteville State University (21-8) on Saturday, clinching its second straight CIAA women’s championship.

Virginia Union was led by sophomore guard Shareka McNeill, who scored 37 points to cap off her record-setting tournament run. Going into the tournament, McNeill led the CIAA in scoring this season, averaging 23 points a game. McNeil went above and beyond in the tournament, tying the conference record for points in a CIAA tournament game (59) and setting the record for points in a single tournament with 131.

“I noticed the first year I coached her, she just had some amazing ability within her, and I’m going to try to tap into every ounce of it before she graduates,” said AnnMarie Gilbert, who’s led Virginia Union to three CIAA championships in her four years leading the program. “This is something the world is seeing new. I watched this every day in practice.”

Gilbert says she’s been waiting for a performance like this out of her star player, and while the historic run isn’t something McNeill herself saw coming, playing in front of her hometown may have had something to do with it.

“I didn’t expect this, to be honest, but with me playing like this in the tournament it’s just the feeling of me being in Charlotte because I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina,” McNeill said. “It’s just amazing to play in front of my friends, my family. It’s just amazing.”

The start of the title game was anything but smooth sailing for McNeill, who missed her first five shots and turned the ball over twice. Fayetteville State coach Serena King-Coleman’s game plan was to take McNeill out of her game early by extending the Broncos’ zone defense in the first quarter. The scheme worked for a while — until McNeill was able to explode for a 25-point second quarter, leading to FSU being down 40-13 at halftime.

“We just extended our zone on the back line to keep it up, but in the second quarter it seemed like the back line kind of laid back,” said King-Coleman. “That happened enough times for us to probably put our heads down a little bit and enough for her to get hot.”

No. 8 Virginia Union’s next goal is winning an NCAA championship, something it fell just short of in 2017 when it lost 93-77 to Ashland University.

Virginia State’s Jahmere Howze, with 28 points and 12 rebounds in the title game, was named CIAA men’s tournament MVP.

Isaiah George

Shaw’s Amir Hinton gets his, but defense helps Va. State win

It’s understandable for a team to get nervous while playing against one of the top scorers in the country, but Virginia State University (27-4) came out the gate firing on all cylinders in a 77-66 win against Amir Hinton and Shaw University (17-13).

Hinton, the leading scorer in NCAA Division II, was his usual self, earning a stat line of 34 points, 5 steals, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Hinton’s efforts weren’t enough to get back into the game, though, as Shaw dug itself an early hole and was down 18 points after only seven minutes of play.

“One thing I’m very proud of these guys is these guys fought to the end, and you can’t ask for nothing else,” said Joel Hopkins, who’s in his second stint as head coach for Shaw.

As for the Virginia State Trojans, they couldn’t have played a better game. They led the entire game and closed out the tournament beating each of their opponents by double digits. Virginia State’s Jahmere Howze, with 28 points and 12 rebounds, was named the men’s tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“You always want to win and you always want to win championships, but I wanted to win for these guys and the hard work they’ve put in,” said VSU head coach Lonnie Blow Jr. “I told them throughout the year, ‘Winning the CIAA championship changes your life. You’re a champion for life after that.’ ”

A conference championship is an adequate reward for any college basketball team that wins 27 games in a season, but senior guard Cedric Wiggins knows to win a national championship his team will have to heavily rely on defense.

“Our coaches try to emphasize us playing team defense, so down the stretch we’ve really been trying to execute,” said Wiggins, who transferred from North Carolina Central University before the season. “Coaches stress that, playing 40 minutes of team defense, so we should be good in the NCAA tournament.”

Both Virginia State and Virginia Union will find out their opponents for the big dance during the NCAA Division II selection show on March 10.

Isaiah George is a senior multimedia journalism major from Temple Hills, Maryland. He's a reporter for BearTV at Morgan and is a fan of all the major Washington, D.C., sports teams.