SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Using a smothering defense that contained one of the nation's highest scoring teams, Bentley University punched its ticket for Wednesday night's national semifinals with a hard-fought 53-52 victory over Virginia Union University Tuesday afternoon in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight at the Sanford Pentagon.
The 29-5 Falcons, who ran their postseason winning streak to 16 and handed coach Barbara Stevens her 800th Bentley victory, will face 33-0 Lubbock Christian University Wednesday at 6 pm CT (7 pm ET, CBS Sports Network) in the first half of a national semifinal doubleheader
Bentley, which maintained the lead for the final 38:24 despite struggling offensively after the first, used 71 percent shooting in the opening stanza, including three triples, and limited the Lady Panthers to just 11 of 41 over the final three quarters to maintain a slim lead.
"It was a game that I felt we dictated at the defensive end," said Stevens following her 957th career victory overall. "I think that we rebounded extremely well, which is certainly one of their strengths. Offensively, we made timely shots."
Junior All-America forward Jen Gemma (Milton, Mass./Fontbonne Academy) led Bentley with 16 points and 12 rebounds, and freshman forward Victoria Lux (Arundel, Maine/Thornton Academy) followed with nine points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
The game came down to the final possession with the ball in the hands of Virginia Union senior guard Kiana Johnson (Chicago, Ill.), Division II's leading scorer and the national player of the year.
After a Falcon turnover with 35 seconds (Bentley's eighth of the fourth), Virginia Union ran the clock before Johnson attempted a jumper in the paint with about eight seconds left. That shot was rejected by Bentley freshman forward Victoria Lux (Arundel, Maine/Thornton Academy) but a scramble and jump ball on the rebound kept it VUU ball, the clock down to 4.2 seconds.
Johnson attempted her 26th shot of the day, an eight-footer in the paint, but it rimmed out and the Falcons secured their tenth appearance in the final four since 1989, their third in the last five seasons.
Stevens' team, whose only deficit of the game was at 1-0, got off to a great start offensively as the Falcons shot 71 percent in the opening quarter, including three-balls from freshman guard Megan Lewis (Sevenoaks, England), senior guard Jane White (Amherst, N.H./Souhegan HS) and sophomore guard Lauren Green (Damascus, Md./Damascus HS). The Falcons led by as many as eight in the quarter and carried a 24-8 advantage into the fourth.
Lux came up big in the quarter with all nine of her points, along with three assists and three rebounds.
Bentley managed only eight field goals over the final 30 minutes, including only one in the fourth, but the defense enabled the Falcons to maintain the advantage.
"In an interview earlier this season, I was asked to describe the team in one word and I said gritty," said White, the team's only senior. "And I think that had a lot to do with what we did in the second half. We really just dug in, did what we had to do and followed our game plan. We got huge rebounds at very important times and we worked together."
The Falcons, in front 36-32 at the half, claimed their biggest lead of the night when they scored the first five points after play resumed. Gemma scored on a put-back and Green followed with a three from the right side, making it 41-32 77 seconds into the third.
Bentley, up six after three at 48-42, saw the lead dwindle to one early in the fourth following a three-pointer from junior guard Ashley Smith (Bear, Del.) and a lay-up from junior center Lady Walker (Cleveland, Ohio). All five points came off turns as the Falcons lost the ball on four times in the first three minutes of the quarter.
Lewis ended the Lady Panther run with a driving lay-up, making it 50-47 with 8:03 to play. With the score 51-50 after two free throws by Johnson with 2:40 to play, Bentley came up with two big rebounds, one at the defensive end by Lux and an offensive by Gemma. Gemma's set up a possession that led to two free throws by sophomore guard Macchi Smith (Los Angeles, Calif./Windward School), making it 53-50 with 1:10 left.
Johnson responded with an elbow jumper, bringing Virginia Union within one again, 53-52 with 57 seconds left. Johnson came up with a steal at the other end, but she was unable to get the final two shots of her career to fall.
Gemma and Lux were followed on Bentley's scoring list by Green (8), White (8) and Lewis (7).
Virginia Union, which came in averaging 85 points a game, was limited to 15 points below its previous season low. Johnson filled the stat sheet with 26 points, seven assists and five steals, but was just 8-of-12 from the floor with five turnovers.
"We knew we could not stop Kiana Johnson, but we wanted to do our best to contain her, maybe limit her good looks at the basket," said Stevens. "Although when the ball was in her hands with four seconds left, I felt a little nervous about that".
Bentley outshot the Lady Panthers 39-32 percent and had the same 39-32 margin in rebounding. The Falcons made five of the game's seven threes but turned the ball over 21 times, to nine for VUU.
Lubbock Christian, a newcomer to the Elite Eight, held off Florida Southern, 73-69, to become the first Elite Eight team to advance. The Lady Chaps were led by senior guard Haley Fowler (23 points on 8/11 shooting) and six-four sophomore Tess Bruffey (16 points, four blocks).