Voorhees' Brandon Allen (left) and WVU Tech's David Rawlinson struggle for control of the ball in front of the Golden Bears' bench during the second half of Sunday's game at Montgomery.
MONTGOMERY -- If there were any justice, WVU Tech students would have stormed the floor twice Sunday afternoon.The Golden Bears nearly pulled a men's/women's double championship at the Association of Independent Institutions tournament. The women pulled their end, downing Robert Morris-Illinois 74-71.That was a thriller that came down to RMU's Celeste Jones' missed 3-pointer at the buzzer. The men's game was equally suspenseful, but Tech missed several opportunities and suffered a crushing 65-64 loss to Voorhees.We could have used a Tech sweep to lifft our basketball spirits in this neck of the woods.
Think about it: West Virginia is struggling so badly, coach Bob Huggins is in perpetual mourning. Marshall's season road deficit is 194 points, which is the approximate number of times coach Tom Herrion has said, "We contributed mightily to this loss."The University of Charleston beat nationally top-ranked West Liberty, then went down the hatch. Coach Bryan Poore suffered one of his worst seasons at West Virginia State. The West Virginia Conference is kaput.Shoot, we were one Capital miracle from having a Kanawha Valley-free girls state tournament this week. I'm going to assume South Charleston's boys will step up this week in its regional co-final.Right?Call the AII tourney what you will - including a markedly shorter road to NAIA nationals than WVC teams faced back in the day - but it was one heck of a showcase for Tech's once-moribund athletic program.Face it: Life has been crazy on that end of the valley. The school was in turmoil over its future and chaos ruled the athletic department - if you can name all the interim athletic directors in one stretch last decade, you have my condolences. The school made what was then an ill-advised decision to bolt from the West Virginia Conference.(Now, it doesn't look so dumb. You think the Mountain East would have taken Tech?)The football program was a belated victim, I believe. Saw part-time golf coach Scott Tinsley at the scorer's table and wondered if he was drawing up offensive plays.The death of football is sad, but the basketball situation is not. Both teams are good stories.Tech's women will make their second trip to the NAIA nationals, being played March 13-19 in Frankfort, Ky. The Bears chopped up the Mid-South Conference in 2006-07, but fell onto tough times since.Coach Jenna Everhart has directed that comeback. (Husband Travis, a volunteer assistant, has joined the University of Charleston football staff as wide receivers coach.)
"This team has really grown," she said. "I've been here three years, and we've went from five to seven wins to [17-13], going to the national tournament. They've worked hard to come together as a team, on and off the court. We've done so many things to work on our team chemistry, and a lot of it comes from recruiting and bringing in the right kids that are not just good players, but are right for the university and right for our program."The Bears took an 11-point halftime lead against RMU, but the Eagles chipped that down to a 70-68 deficit in the final minute, courtesy of a Mary Colon 3-pointer. Colon nearly stole the ball on Tech's trip to the other end, but the Bears retained possession on a held ball.Shortly after the inbounds pass, Amy Gardner fired a long, long 3-pointer that made it 73-68 with 38 seconds left. A University at Buffalo transfer who is jokingly nicknamed "Kansas" - as in where she shoots from - she had missed her first six 3s.And get this: She is playing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Surgery, smurgery.Point guard Nia Nolan was the tournament's MVP after scoring 25 points and dishing out 12 assists in two games. The Bears needed them all, starting with their 60-57 semifinal win Saturday over Voorhees.Courtney Sturdivant, the AII player of the year, had 20 points and Amber Tully hit five 3-pointers to finish with 18.
Back on the men's side, coach Bob Williams deserved better. He finished his 11th season on the Golden Bears' sideline, which means he survived all the craziness that swirled around him. He kept a steady hand through it all, putting together respectable teams year in and year out.And remember, his team won the unoffical Mid-South championship last season but couldn't advance in the postseason. In a show of pettiness, that Kentucky-based circuit sidelined Tech for having the temerity to apply for NCAA Division II membership.With a core of David Rawlinson and Terrale Clark, Williams had to replace seven seniors. He got some help with second-semester reinforcements and the team won its 20th game Saturday, 74-70 over an athletic Robert Morris team."A lot of the kids we had, and played a lot, nobody recruited them, really," Williams said. "They overachieved to win 20 games, be a point away from going to the national tournament. ... It was very enjoyable for me, as a coach, to be around these guys."Sunday afternoon, the Bears were betrayed by uncharacteristic shooting troubles in their own Baisi Center, hitting just 31 percent from the floor and 6 of 27 from 3-point range. Clark and Rawlinson had 19 and 15 points, respectively, but combined to shoot 7 of 24.And the Bears left five points on the foul line in the final five minutes, including the most painful, Clark's first-shot miss with 25.2 seconds left. When he made the second, Tech remained down 65-64.Still, the Bears (20-12) had two good chances to win. The first came after Eddie Gordon's steal at halfcourt, after which Clark received the ball on the baseline. But he missed and Tech had to foul with 8.8, and then 6.7 seconds left.Voorhees' Travis Dupree missed the front end of the one-and-one, giving the Bears a chance to dash to the other end. Alas, the Tigers made a super defensive play, tying up Jaren Marino right before the buzzer rang.The possession arrow favored Tech, but the clock did not. Williams lobbied for more time than the 0.3 seconds the Bears were granted, which allowed nothing more than a tip-in off the inbounds pass. Dupree defended the lob to Armond Perez well enough to give Voorhees the game.Williams was downcast but he found this season - and the weekend - quite rewarding. And his surroundings are much more stable under athletic director Frank Pergolizzi, who is in his fourth (!) year."I think that's why you're seeing all the sports teams improve this year," Williams said. "From the top down, the administration is very good right now, and they're committed to athletics. You saw the student body; all the teams here root for one another, they're very close."I thought it was great for the women go to nationals. It was a special weekend for Tech. People that came really got to see good basketball."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.