SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The Virginia Union Lady Panthers will be the next test for the Bentley University women's basketball team that traveled to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight riding a remarkable 15-game postseason winning streak.
The two teams, both of whom have 28 wins under their belts, will square off Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 pm ET at the Sanford Pavilion for the right to play in Wednesday night's national semifinals. The game can be viewed at http://www.ncaa.com/championship/liveplayer/player?gameId=1689233&date=2016/03/22.
Bentley, an Elite Eight participant for the fourth time in six years and two years removed from winning the 2014 national championship, punched its ticket last Monday night with a come-from-behind victory over NYIT in the East Regional final. It was the seventh straight win for coach Barbara Stevens' 28-5 team which has improved on last year's victory total by 17, as well as Stevens' 799th Bentley victory.
The regional final marked the fifth time this season that the Falcons have battled back from a double-digit deficit to win. Bentley, down by as many as 14 in the second and 45-35 at intermission, dominated the third quarter (27-11 on 77 percent shooting) and held off the Bears in the fourth.
Virginia Union comes into the Elite Eight at 28-2 after winning their last 15 contests. The Lady Panthers, who won the second-ever NCAA Division II national championship back in 1983, have turned it around quickly under the leadership of first-year head coach AnnMarie Gilbert after finishing just 9-18 a year ago. In their regional, they recorded a 91-77 win over West Liberty.
The Bentley-VUU game will be the second of four games at the Pentagon on Tuesday with all four being webcast by the NCAA at www.ncaa.com/liveschedule. Action will kick off at noon central (1 pm ET) with 32-0 Lubbock Christian, a newcomer to Division II and the Elite Eight, meeting 27-5 Florida Southern.
In the evening games, Alaska Anchorage (36-2) will face 24-8 Francis Marion (S.C.), and 29-5 Pittsburg State (Kans.) will square off against 25-9 Grand Valley State (Mich.).
Bentley certainly has a different look from the 2014 team that won it all. Junior forward Jen Gemma (Milton, Mass./Fontbonne Academy) is the only remaining Falcon who played in the national championship contest, a 73-65 win over West Texas A&M that saw Stevens' team close with a 19-5 explosion over the final three minutes after trailing by six. Senior co-captain Jane White (Amherst, N.H./Souhegan HS) and juniors Melina Kollia (Athens, Greece) and Parker Gregory (Fishkill, N.Y./John Jay HS) were with the Falcons then, but none saw action.
That national championship team featured five seniors and two graduate students among its top eight. In contrast, Stevens' latest team to make it to the Elite Eight starts two freshmen and a sophomore among with Gemma, the D2CCCA East Region Player of the Year, and White, who was injured in 2014.
Gemma, who has moved to 12th on Bentley's all-time scoring list (1,517) despite still having a year to play, has had a banner season, one that has seen her be selected as the Most Outstanding Player during both the regional and the Northeast-10 Championships. Her 658 points is a Bentley single season record and her 310 rebounds is the most by a Falcon in 13 years.
The D2CCA East Region Player of the Year averages 19.9 points (nearly a half-point better than the school record she set last season) and 9.4 rebounds. Gemma is one of five players in program history to attempt at least 200 free throws in a season and she's also shot over 40 percent from three.
Stevens' lineup has been constant this season with Gemma joined by White, freshman guard Megan Lewis (Sevenoaks, England), sophomore guard Lauren Green (Damascus, Md./Damascus HS) and freshmen forward Victoria Lux (Arundel, Maine/Thornton Academy).
Lewis drilled three triples during the big third quarter against NYIT and has averaged 15.4 points in the last five games. Green made 9 of 17 threes during the regional while averaging 13.3 points. Lux, whose sister Vanessa played for the Falcons from 2004-08, enters the Elite Eight averaging 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds. White's 80 assists is second to Lewis' 93, and she's also second to Lewis in steals.
Sophomore guard Macchi Smith (Los Angeles, Calif./Windward School) and junior center Melina Kollia (Athens, Greece) played key roles off the bench in the regional. Smith made 8 of 13 shots and came up with ten steals while Kollia averaged 8.0 points, nearly triple her regular season production.
Virginia Union features the nation's leading scorer in five-foot-six Michigan State transfer Kiana Johnson. She scores 29.3 a game and also provides the Lady Panthers with 8.7 assists (2nd in Division II), 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 steals a game. Johnson has buried 78 three-pointers with a .413 success rare from downtown, and has also attempted 260 free throws this season. The senior had 49 points in the regional final, breaking the school record of 45 she set earlier in the season.
Johnson will mandate a great deal of attention but she certainly isn't the only weapon VUU brings to the Elite Eight. One of those is six-foot-two junior Lady Walker, who produces 18.2 points and 13.4 rebounds a game with a .531 field goal percentage.
Junior forward Rahni Bell (9.7 ppg) has hit 74 three-pointers with 80 percent of her attempts coming from outside the arc. Taylor White, who like Walker is six-two, provides nine points a game as well as 10.2 boards.
VUU scores 85 points a game with a .456 shooting percentage and average of over nine triples.
This will be the first-ever meeting between the two programs.