The Falcons punched their ticket Monday night with a wire-to-wire 83-62 victory over LIU Post in the East Regional championship game at the Dana Center, a victory that boosted coach Barbara Stevens' team to 32-0, tying the school record for longest winning streak.
Next up for coach Barbara Stevens and her senior-laden team is a trip to Erie, Pa. for a national quarterfinal encounter with Drury University next Tuesday night (8:30 pm).
"I expected nothing less from this group," said Stevens following her 914th career victory. "From the second last year's game ended (a 53-51 loss to Dowling), this group of seniors was determined to get back here and further. I saw it every day, every practice, they brought their level of play up every game. I had the utmost confidence in them. These games make you nervous, but when I thought about this group of seniors, it calmed me down."
Powering the Falcons to the victory were their three of those veterans, a trio who share more than 5,000 career points and 121 victories between them, each a member of the All-Tournament Team: Regional Most Outstanding Player Courtney Finn (Winthrop/Winthrop HS), two-time All-America forward Lauren Battista (North Easton/ Oliver Ames HS) and four-time All-Conference forward Jacqui Brugliera (Fitchburg/Wachusett Reg. HS).
Brugliera turned in her premier effort of the season, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Battista added 16 to her school record point total, which now stands at 2,053, and Finn finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists. They were three of the seven Falcons who were playing at home for the final time with that septet largely responsible for 70 homecourt wins over the last four years.
After being denied in last year's regional final, Bentley established control from the start, vaulting out to a 10-2 lead less than three minutes into the game. Brugliera opened the contest with a couple layups and Battista followed with a foul-line jumper. Following a Pioneer basket, both Battista and freshman forward Jen Gemma (Milton/Fontbonne Academy) stretched the lead to eight.
"We weren't going to be caught by surprise," said Battista, the Capital One Academic All-America of the Year for Division II. "We played with great aggressiveness from the start. We wanted to send a message early. We know teams are coming out for us, so we have to be ready early."
A few minutes later, Bentley ran off seven straight to make it a 24-10 game and force an LIU Post timeout at 12:04. Following that run, which included a drive to the basket by junior guard Kelsey Mattice (Cicero, N.Y./Cicero North Syracuse HS) and five straight by Battista, the Falcons were shooting 69 percent and the Pioneers were at 21, with five turnovers.
The visitors battled back and by the time Post sophomore guard Jalyn Brown (Riverhead, N.Y.) drained a three with 4:05, the Falcon advantage was down to five.
Brugliera answered with a top-of-the-key three, igniting a 12-2 burst that sent Bentley into the half riding a 46-31 lead. That run also included a driving lay-up by Finn to beat the shot clock, a triple by Mattice, a lay-up from senior forward Tyler Parker Kimball (New Britain, Conn./New Britain HS) and a drive from Gemma, who averaged 14 in the regional.
It took a while for the Falcons to get untracked once play resumed (0-for-5, three turns) and the first six points went up on the Pioneer side of the scoreboard.
The dry spell ended when grad student and guard Chrystal Guarin (Aliso Viejo, Calif./Troy HS) drove for a lay-up. That was followed by her taking a charge at the defensive end, and it grew into a 19-9 run that extended the lead to 19, 65-46 with 11 minutes to play.
All six of Guarin's points came during that span, and both Finn and Battista connected from three-point land during the run.
The final 21-point differential matched Bentley's biggest lead of the night and was achieved when senior point Christiana Bakolas (Manchester, N.H./Central HS) hit a jumper in the paint with 4:13 to play.
Brugliera achieved her 20 by making 7 of 12 overall, one three-pointer and all five of her free throws. Five of her boards came at the offensive end.
"I watched the You Tube video of last year's game last night for motivation," said Brugliera. "We all had the mindset we weren't going to lose. We were confident, played aggressive, as opposed to perhaps playing tentative last season."
Bentley's fourth double-digit scorer was Gemma, with 14 points (5-7 shooting) and six rebounds off the bench. Bakolas survived foul trouble to provide eight points and four assists.
Bentley shot 51 percent while limiting the Pioneers to 34 percent, and also won the rebounding battle for the 32nd straight game, finishing with 41-35 advantage.
Junior guard Chelsea Williams (Copiague, N.Y.), who joined the Bentley three and teammate Alexis Peters (Dorchester) on the All-Tournament team, led LIU Post with 23 points.
The regional championship is Bentley's 13th since 1989.
"We know what to expect so we won't feel the moment is too big," said Battista, who helped the Falcons to the national quarterfinals as a freshman and the semis as a sophomore. "We need to go in with confidence knowing we are the team to beat. So that's how we are going to play."
"We're just so thrilled to represent Bentley and our region," said Stevens. "Every step of the tourney it gets tougher and tougher."