CHARLOTTE, NC (CIAA) – The Johnson C. Smith women are headed to its first CIAA championship game under Head Coach Stephen Joyner, Jr. after stunning nationally-ranked Virginia Union at the Spectrum Center on Friday, February 24.
Blaire Thomas and Monique Hall each scored 18 points off the bench as the Golden Bulls gave an inspired effort in an 81-75 semifinal win over the defending champion Panthers, who ranked 12th in the latest USA Today Top 25 poll. The victory puts the Golden Bulls (20-7 overall) in Saturday’s title game against Virginia State at 4 p.m.
The Golden Bulls’ intensity was best reflected in the final period. After Brittany Jackson swished a three-pointer for a 73-72 Lady Panthers lead with 1:12 remaining, the Golden Bulls went on a 9-2 run to secure the win. All of the points were free throws as the Golden Bulls, the No. 1 Southern Division seed, made nine of 10 free throw attempts.
“We put this team together to get to this moment because we knew the road would go through [Virginia Union],” Joyner said. “I am proud of them but as soon as we walk out of [the interview room], it is behind us.”
The Lady Panthers (23-4 overall) lead the CIAA in rebounding margin by a whopping ratio but the Golden Bulls were more than up to the task on the boards. Led by eight points and 17 rebounds from MaryAnna Moore and nine rebounds from Thomas, the Golden Bulls handled the Lady Panthers in that category 49-41 which led to a 20-16 edge in second chance points.
The Golden Bulls duo limited Lady Walker, the CIAA Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, to six rebounds. Walker averages a league-best 11.3 rebounds per game.
“Boxing out was the key,” Moore said. “We had to box her out.”
Thomas and Hall sparked a Golden Bulls bench which outscored the Lady Panthers reserves 36-26. Their depth was a factor throughout the contest, especially in the fourth quarter when the Golden Bulls pulled away in the final minutes.
“Our depth can carry us,” Joyner said. “If we win the championship, it is because we can go 10 to 12 deep.”
The Golden Bulls were determined not to lose, even though they trailed 20-19 after the first period. Once they tied the score 20-20 early in the second quarter, the Golden Bulls never trailed again until late in the third quarter. They led at halftime 42-37.
The Golden Bulls opened a 50-42 lead in the third period but the defending champions wouldn’t go away. Jackson capped a 15-6 run with a three-pointer to put the Lady Panthers ahead 57-56 with 2:23 in the third. The period ended in a tie 61-61.
The Golden Bulls seized control of the fourth period, leading by six at one point. Even though the Lady Panthers rallied for a one-point lead, the Golden Bulls finished strong down the stretch to eliminate the No. 2 Northern Division seed and division tri-champion.
Anika Jones scored 17 points and Maiya Green added 12 points for the Golden Bulls, who shot 41.2 percent. Rachael Pecota came off the bench to score 16 points for the Lady Panthers, who had five players score in double figures. Jackson and Alexis Johnson each scored 14 points and Walker had 11 points while Jayda Luckie finished with 10 points for the Lady Panthers, who shot 42 percent.
The Lady Panthers can only wait for the NCAA Regional pairings to learn if their season will continue. Their chances are good since they are ranked No. 2 in the latest Atlantic Regional rankings.
“The great thing is this team’s body of work is solid,” said Lady Panthers Head Coach AnnMarie Gilbert, whose squad reached the Elite Eight last season. “We played good [in the CIAA Tournament} but we needed to play well. I’d like to see us make a run in the NCAA Tournament.”
With a victory on Saturday, Joyner would join his father – legendary Golden Bulls Men’s Head Coach Stephen Joyner, Sr. – as having won a CIAA title. Joyner, Sr. has coached the Golden Bulls to three CIAA men’s championships. Joyner Jr. understands the significance of Saturday’s game but does not allow himself to get too overwhelmed by the thought of it.
“I try not to think about it because I want to put my focus into the girls,” said Joyner, who comes from a successful coaching family. “I’m not going to lie and say the pressure isn’t there. It is there, but that is something I have lived with my entire life as a student-athlete and coach at Johnson C. Smith.”
His biggest task is getting the team’s mind off their win over Virginia Union and on Saturday’s title game, though he admitted it won’t be hard to do.
“We don’t have any hardware, so we have work to do,” Joyner said. “When you see a lady like MaryAnna Moore battle Lady Walker and get 17 rebounds, we are ready.”