The city of Charlotte, North Carolina had hundreds of thousands of people in town for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament. The CIAA conference is comprised of twelve Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) that are affiliated at the Division II level of the NCAA. This year the Virginia Union Panthers laid claim to being the best of the best.
The Lady Panthers were poised to bring home the trophy. They had been nationally ranked all season with a 25-2 overall record. They were an amazing 15-1 in the conference. Their only loss was at the hands of Chowan in their Northern Division. The Lady Panthers also remembered last year when they were upset by Virginia State in the semifinals. This provided Coach Ann Marie Gilbert with all the talking points she would need to get her team’s attention. They had to win the CIAA tournament to avenge one of their losses. They also needed to obtain a number one seed in the NCAA tournament if they wanted to get back to the championship game.
The Lady Panthers would get their revenge in the quarterfinals after Chowan beat Saint Augustine. It wouldn’t be the two point win they had gotten earlier in the season. It was an 89-58 woodshed whipping! They showed signs of rust in the first half, probably because of having a first round bye. It was only a 38-27 halftime lead. Gilbert apparently gave one motivating halftime speech, because they outscored Chowan 31-12 in the third quarter. It was game over. With the revenge complete, the Lady Panthers throttled their next opponent Lincoln University (PA.) 73-50. This would put them in the championship game verse Bowie State.
Bowie State was the “Cinderella” team of the tournament. They were a fourth seed that had to play on opening day. They knocked off the number one seed in the south in Fayetteville State 72-64 in OT. They turned around and beat the number two seed in the south in Virginia State 53-49. It seemed like they had all the momentum going for them in the championship game verse the Lady Panthers. However, the Lady Panthers had no time for a fairytale ending. They started the game on a 7-0 run and never looked back. The first quarter was a 20-6 lead by the Lady Panthers and a halftime lead of 32-16. Bowie State tried a magical run in the third quarter, outscoring the Lady Panthers 21-17. They even had a 10-0 run to trim the lead down to 49-37. The Lady Panthers put all that to rest to begin the fourth quarter. They went on a 7-2 run to extend the lead to 58-39. The lead never got below 15 as the Lady Panthers cruised to a 73-57 victory. They were led by the tournament’s MVP Alexis Johnson, who scored 21 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. It also took an outstanding game from Rachael Pecota who led all scorers with 28 points and 10 rebounds. It was the Lady Panther’s second title in three years under Coach Gilbert.
The guys watched the ladies cut down the nets and all they could think about was, that has to be us too. The only difference, the guys were not the favorites coming into the tournament. They were a three seed in the Northern Division. The focus was on top seed Virginia State, also in the Northern Division, who lost in the finals last year and didn’t get into the NCAA tournament. In the Southern Division, Johnson C. Smith would have the home crowd on their side as the number one seed in the South.
The bottom half of the men’s bracket didn’t have any upsets. Every game stayed true to form. In the semifinals, it featured the number one seed from the South in Johnson C. Smith verse the number two seed in the North in Bowie State. The top seed won 80-71 and waited on their next opponent for the championship game. The Panthers beat Winston-Salem State on Wednesday night. They beat the number two seed in the South, Shaw on Thursday night. Then they took down the top seed Virginia State on Friday in the semifinals, proving they are the best team in Virginia. Although I’m sure there is a team in the ACC known as the Cavaliers who might beg to differ. However, it set up a matchup with Johnson C. Smith on Saturday night for the title, another number one seed.
It is no way that the Panthers could win four games in four nights and claim the title. They had to be tired. The first half was back and forth between both teams, with four ties and five lead changes. The Panthers ended the first half on 9-2 run that gave them a 36-28 halftime lead. Much like their women counterparts, they knew they needed a solid second half if they were going to join them in celebrating a victory. Similar to the women, they came out the locker room ready. Apparently, their Coach Jay Butler talked about his three titles he won at Virginia Union as player from 1994-96 to motivate them. They started the second half on a 19-7 run that opened the lead to 55-36 with over 11 minutes left to go in the game. Johnson C. Smith tried to cut into the lead but it was just too much Panthers too often. Their lead increased to 32 points at one point before ending the game 82-52. The Panthers became the first team since 2007 to win four games in four days and claim their first title since 2006. They were led by tournament MVP Kory Cooley who had 13 points. In addition, Todd Hughes led the team in scoring with 22 points and grabbed six rebounds.
Virginia Union is now the fifth school since 1975 and the first since 2011 (Shaw) to take home both championships in the same year. Both the men and women have secured their spot in the NCAA Division II tournament. Now let’s see if they can both go out and bring home that championship.