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Cumberland catches Vanguard off guard
Mar 21, 2007 12:00 am
JACKSON — The NAIA national championship is still a few hours from being decided. But one clear winner is the TranSouth Conference.
Two TSC rivals, Cumberland and Lambuth, will wage basketball war on the Oman Arena hardwood at 6 p.m. tonight looking for the championship after both pulled off upset wins Monday night.
Cumberland reached the NAIA finals for the first time with a 68-64 upset of previously undefeated Vanguard [Calif.] before Lambuth followed by dethroning two-time national champ Union 65-64 in a meeting of Jackson rivals. Dee Preyer's three-pointer in the closing seconds lifted the Lady Eagles to a 26-9 record.
"It's a big night for the TranSouth Conference and a big night for Cumberland University," said fourth-year coach Clint Mason, whose 27-7 Lady Bulldogs are in a national final for the first time since the 1983 team finished second in the junior-college tournament. "The opportunity to play for a national championship is something a lot of people don't get in a lifetime and we're 40 minutes away. It's something the community should be proud of. It puts our program on the map."
Tonight's game will be nationally televised on CSTV, which is available by Direct TV satellite. It will also be broadcast live on WANT-FM 98.9. For students wishing to drive the 2 1/2 hours to Jackson, school president Dr. Harvill Eaton announced classes will be canceled at noon today.
Cumberland and Lambuth are no stranger on the field or court. In many sports, the Eagles are the Bulldogs' biggest rivals. The teams met in the quarterfinals of the TSC tournament less than three weeks ago with the host Lady Eagles whipping the Lady Bulldogs 88-63. The teams split the regular-season series with Cumberland coming from an early nine-point deficit to win 84-83 at the Dallas Floyd Center on Jan. 11 before Lambuth won the rematch in Jackson 96-89 in overtime Feb. 8.
"It's good we lost to Lambuth two weeks ago because our kids are still thinking about it," Mason said. "That hangs on their minds.
"We just got to come out with a lot of effort and energy and lay it all out there and bring home the title."
What the Lady Bulldogs won't have is Kiana Robinson, the junior guard who brought NCAA championship experience from Connecticut. She pushed Cumberland to the brink of the title game by firing in five three-pointers on her way to a team-high 20 points before going out with a season-ending Achilles' tendon tear with about four minutes left.
"She has the ability to make big-time shots," Mason said of Robinson. "It's a big blow to us but we can't sit around and say the season's over... We've got to go with what we've got.
"We've got a deep team that's talented in the bench and we got to do it one more time. I'm very proud of where they came from and where they're at and we can finish it tomorrow night."
With Robinson firing away, Cumberland built a 14-point lead in the first half. But the Lady Lions roared back to go up 61-59 on a Lacey Burns three-pointer with 3:22 to play.
Renae Williams, who finished with 15 on five triples of her own, scored from downtown to put the Lady Bulldogs back in the lead.
Vanguard took the lead right back 63-62 on Rachel Besse's putback at 2:46.
Cumberland's next three possessions consisted of a turnover and two missed three-pointers before Isabelli Cunico rebounded a miss with just under a minute to play and buried her only triple of the night to put the Lady Bulldogs up 65-63 with 53 seconds left.
The Lady Bulldogs rebounded Besse's missed putback with 42 seconds left and Williams buried her fourth triple of the second half to build a five-point lead with less than 15 seconds to play.
Burns was fouled on a three-point attempt but made only 1 of 3 free throws. Vanguard turned the ball over on the rebound and Cumberland ran out the clock to send the Lady Lions back to California with a 31-1 record.
C'Kala Humes tossed in 12 points for CU while Tomika Hall had eight points and 10 rebounds. Ashley Cross supplied eight points, eight assists and four steals while Cunico finished with five points and Mariel Ruis tossed in two.
Kelly Schmidt totaled 22 points and 13 rebounds for Vanguard while Besse scored 17 and Jessica Richter 11.
A Robinson three and a Hall basket built a 5-0 Lady Bulldog lead and a 14-4 run opened a 25-12 advantage less than seven minutes in. Williams' only first-half triple widened the margin to 35-21 with just six minutes left in the first half.
But a 9-0 Lady Lion run brought Vanguard within 35-30 with less than 30 seconds left in the half before Cross converted a putback for a 37-30 halftime lead.
"They were playing their zone like we knew they would," Mason said. "We were distributing the ball well and we knocked down some threes early.
"The second half, they came out and made a run at us like we knew they would."
Vanguard's run came despite the loss of Richter, the Lady Lions' leading scorer with an average of just over 21 points per game who fouled out with 8:09 left to play.
The Lady Lions, a 75-percent free-throw shooting team for the season, made just 4 of 13 in the second half, negating their advantages in the paint where they outscored the Lady Dawgs 32-24 and outrebounded them 46-36.