WALTHAM, Mass. – The Bentley University Falcons and the American International College Yellow Jackets have been the top women's basketball teams in the Northeast-10 Conference, as well as the NCAA Division II East Region, this season.
So it's fitting that the two teams will meet up Sunday afternoon (1 pm) at Bentley's Dana Center in the championship game of the 2016 NE-10 Women's Basketball Championships. For those unable to make it to the Dana, a free webcast will be available at www.northeast10.tv.
Bentley, 24-5 after improving on last year's win total by 11, captured the conference's Northeast Division title. AIC, undefeated in its last 10 and 25-4 overall, was the Southwest Division champion. Each of the two NCAA Division II East Region rankings that have been issued have had the Falcons number one and the Yellow Jackets second.
While both were number one seeds out of their respectively divisions, Bentley got to host the championship game by virtue of a win in the teams' only regular season encounter, back on Jan. 16. The Falcons traveled out to Springfield and returned with a 72-65 victory.
In that one, freshman guard Megan Lewis (Sevenoaks, England) hit two threes during a closing 12-7 run that included four Falcon free throws in the final ten seconds. Coach Barbara Stevens' team took the lead for good on a three by sophomore guard Lauren Green (Damascus, Md./Damacus HS) with under seven minutes to play and held off the Jackets the rest of the way.
Bentley used a pair of four-point wins to reach the finals, 54-50 over Stonehill and 78-74 against Southern Connecticut. The Falcons, who have won 14 straight NE-10 tournament games and their last 11 postseason contests, scored the final four points in the quarters against Stonehill and the final six Thursday against the Owls.
AIC had an easier time, although the Yellow Jackets did trail New Haven by 15 in the opening quarter of the semis before advancing, 75-67. During the quarters, they dispatched Adelphi by nine, 93-84, in the highest scoring game thus far in this year's championships.
This will be the third time the two programs will meet in the championship game with Bentley having won the previous two, 79-52 in 1996 and 75-61 two years earlier. All-time, the Falcons are 10-0 against the Yellow Jackets during the NE-10's, the last meeting coming in the 2012 quarterfinals (67-53).
Bentley is making its 26th appearance in the title game and will be seeking a record 19th championship, including fifth in the last six seasons. AIC, a finalist for the second consecutive year, is 1-3 all-time with its lone championship coming 14 years ago.
AIC comes into the final as the NE-10's leading defensive team (54.2 points allowed, opponent field goal percentage of .353, 9.2 steals) while Bentley is first in scoring offense (68.0), three-pointers (6.7) and assists (15.1). The Falcons have also been solid defensively, holding their opponents to 59.9 points and a .378 shooting percentage.
Bentley features the NE-10 Player of the Year and leading scorer in junior forward Jen Gemma (Milton/Fontbonne Academy). She's averaged 27 points in the first two rounds, including 34 of the Falcons' 54 in the Stonehill win, and has scored 20 or more in eight of the last nine. For the season, the six-footer is averaging 20.2 points, seven-tenths of a point more than the school record she set last year.
Gemma leads the conference in free throws, is second in both free throw and field goal percentages, and is third in rebounds, averaging 9.5.
Stevens has gone with the same starting five all season with Gemma joined by Green, Lewis, senior co-captain Jane White (Amherst, N.H../Souhegan HS) and freshman forward Victoria Lux (Arundel, Maine/Thornton Academy). Green and Lewis are both tied for second on the scoring list at 9.4 a game, Lux has averaged 6.6 points and 5.5 boards, and White is second in assists with 74.
Green shoots .407 from three, second-best in the NE-10, and Lewis leads the Falcons in assists (82) and steals (57). Lewis was outstanding in the semis against Southern, with a career-best 21 points as well as five rebounds, four steals, three blocks and three assists. Green also played a role with 12 points.
AIC's season has included a winning streaks of 15 and 10 games, separated by four consecutive losses midseason. Those came to four of the Northeast Division's five tournament teams: Saint Anselm, Franklin Pierce and Stonehill, as well as the Falcons.
The Yellow Jackets come in with three double-figure scorers, including first-team All-Northeast-10 guard Brianna Bishop. The 13.8 point-per-game scorer has been nearly perfect at the foul stripe (78-83, .940) and has 61 three-pointers, second most in the conference.
Six-foot post Kamika Mason, a second-team All-NE-10 pick, has blocked 56 shots while averaging 11.7 points and seven rebounds. Off the bench, six-one freshman Dana Watts has contributed 11.2 points a game.
Both teams will almost assuredly receive NCAA invitations when the field is announced during a Sunday night selection show on www.NCAA.com (10 pm).