ERIE, Pa. – For the second time in three years, the Bentley University women's basketball team has reached the Final Four of Division II.
Powered by the All-America tandem of grad student Courtney Finn (Winthrop, Mass./ Winthrop HS) and senior National Player of the Year candidate Lauren Battista (North Easton, Mass./ Oliver Ames HS), who combined for 50, the undefeated and number-one-ranked Falcons held off sixth-ranked Drury University (Mo.) 74-68 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight at the Erie Insurance Arena.
Bentley, which set a school record for consecutive wins (33) and tied the school record for wins in a season (33-0), will face Cal Poly Pomona Wednesday night at 8:30 pm (CBS Sports Network) for the right to play in Friday night's national championship game.
Finn, a night after being named to the WBCA Division II All-America team, erupted for a career-high 30 points and also claimed ten rebounds. Battista, an All-America for the third time and Bentley's all-time leading scorer, uncharacteristically struggled with her shot for much of the game, but came up big down the stretch, making her final three shots to finish with 20 points, five rebounds and two steals.
"When you have these two on your team, when things break down, they are go-to players," praised Barbara Stevens, who has her Bentley team in the national semifinals for the ninth time since 1989. "When we went to them, they delivered."
It was a strong start and finish that carried Bentley to the victory over the 27-4 Lady Panthers, who overcame a 13-point first-half deficit to grab a four-point second-half advantage.
"I think it really helps us that the majority of us have been here before, said Finn. "When we came here we knew what to expect."
Battista agreed, stating "I think the experience we have is we are extremely confident with one another. Even though they made a run at us, there was never a sense of doubt that we would lose the game. I think that comes from our four years playing together."
With six-foot-one senior Caleigh Crowell (Harwich, Mass./Worcester Academy) having the hot hand early, Bentley vaulted out to a 15-4 lead less than six minutes into the contest. All 11 of Crowell's points came during that stretch as she connected three times from outside the arc and also scored on a put-back.
Later in the first half, Finn drained a three from the top of the key and freshman forward Jen Gemma (Milton, Mass./Fontbonne Academy) followed with a jumper in the paint. That made it a 29-16 contest with 6:18 left in the opening half.
Bentley, after connecting six times from three over the first 14 minutes, managed only one more basket the remainder of the half, a Finn triple with 22 seconds to play ending a stretch in which the Falcons put only four points on the board, all from the line. Much of that time was played with three starters, including Battista and Crowell, sitting with two fouls.
That dry spell enabled the Lady Panthers to close to within four at the break, 36-22. The momentum of that 16-7 run carried over into the second half as baskets by sophomore guard Annie Armstrong (Springfield, Mo.) and junior forward Sanayika Shields (Olathe, Kans.) tied the game just 59 seconds after play resumed.
Bentley bounced back with a 9-4 spurt to reclaim the lead at 45-40 with 15 minutes on the clock. That spurt included a pair of driving lay-ups by Battista.
However, the next five-plus minutes belonged to the upset-minded Lady Panthers as they embarked on a 12-3 run with the only Falcon points coming on another Finn trifecta. As a result, Bentley was facing a 52-48 deficit with under ten to play.
As it had earlier in the half when challenged, Stevens' team responded, this time with nine unanswered points. Gemma got things started with a driving lay-up for a three-point play. Finn made two free throws, drew a charge at the other end (her second of the night and one of five for the Falcons in the game), and sank two more free throws after getting fouled while attempting a three.
After neither team was able to score over the next 90 seconds, the run resumed with an inside basket by Finn making it 57-52.
With the score at 59-55 a little more than a minute later, Crowell drew an offensive foul on Drury center Amber Dvorak (Hinckley, Minn.), fouling the six-foot-seven post out of the game. The Falcon posts, including senior Jacqui Brugliera (Fitchburg, Mass./Wachusett Reg. HS) did a nice job of containing her all night, limiting her to two points, on 1-of-9 shooting, and nine rebounds.
A three by Armstrong with 2:55 left cut a six-point lead in half, but the two All-Americas answered, Battista hitting a 15-footer and Finn a driving lay-up. That made it a three-possession game, 68-61 with 1:52 showing.
Battista came up with a steal with just under a minute to play and followed with a pair of free throws to push the lead back to seven, 70-63, with 44.6 left, and two free throws by Finn and one by senior point guard Christiana Bakolas (Manchester, N.H./Central HS) in the final 33 seconds secured advancement for the Falcons.
"There certainly were some tense moments," said Stevens after her 915th career win. "We made some mistakes defensively that cost us. But ultimately, when it came down to making plays, I thought Courtney and Lauren made the big plays we needed to make."
Finn, who exceeded her previous high by five points, made seven of 11 shots overall, four of five from downtown and 12 of 15 from the line. She combined with Battista and Crowell with 61 points, the trio nearly matching Drury's total.
Shields was impressive for Drury, finishing with 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, 11 rebounds, four steals and a couple blocks.
Bentley had a slight shooting advantage, 40-39 percent, but was outrebounded for the first time this season, 40-35. The Falcons committed only ten turns and forced 16, but didn't advantage of the Lady Panther mistakes, scoring only five points off.
"I don't think it was a tremendous offensive performance by us," said Stevens. "At the same time, I think our team showed a tremendous amount of grit, a tremendous amount of determination."
Wednesday's semifinal will be the first meeting between Bentley and Cal Poly Pomona since the 1989 Final Four in Cleveland, Miss. That one was won by the Broncos, 84-83 in double overtime.
Cal Poly Pomona, 26-6 and ranked 18th, advanced with an 81-61 win over Edinboro University, using 35 points and nine rebounds from six-one junior All-America Jada Blackwell.
In the first half of Wednesday's doubleheader, fifth-ranked West Texas A&M will take on tenth-ranked Nova Southeastern.