COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the first time in 15 years, the University of Charleston women are headed to the national tournament.
Senior guard Brooklyn Pannell, selected as the Atlantic Region MVP, scored 27 points and Erykah Russell had 17 points and eight rebounds as the Mountain East Conference champion Golden Eagles stormed to an 82-52 victory against Tiffin in the NCAA Division II regional finals at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Pannell, the MEC player of the year who played at nearby Reynoldsburg in high school, also had 27 points in UC’s regional semifinal win against Walsh on Saturday.
Charleston (19-2), riding a six-game winning streak, advances to the Division II Elite Eight national tournament March 23-26, also set to be played at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. The last time UC made it to the NCAA nationals was the 2005-06 season under coach Sherry Winn.
Monday’s victory cemented a happy homecoming for first-year Golden Eagles coach Tianni Kelly, who played her high school ball at Pickerington North, about 18 miles from Columbus.
“It was nice to be able to do that in front of my family,'' Kelly said, “and it was nice for [Pannell] to be able play that well in front of her family and get the tournament MVP.''
The game was sluggish at the outset, not surprising since each team was among the defensive leaders in its conference this season, Tiffin allowing 63.0 points per game and Charleston 65.4. The Golden Eagles led just 4-2 at the 4:30 mark of the first quarter and settled for an 11-all tie after one period.
“Absolutely [pleased],'' Kelly said of her team's stellar defense. “We always talk about it's not just one person, it's team defense and our people were great in the gaps and did a great job. I'm extremely proud of the way we played defense and I told them [before the game] if we play defense like we can, we'll come out on top.''
Charleston took control in the second quarter, turning that 11-all score into a 41-18 lead at halftime. The Golden Eagles tallied the final 15 points of the second quarter, six by Pannell and five by Russell. Dakota Reeves also knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the second period and finished with 11 points.
Tiffin (18-9), from the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, was saddled with 13 personal fouls in the first half, 23% shooting from the floor and 13 turnovers. Frustration boiled over as Dragons coach Miriam Justinger was whistled for a technical foul with 54 seconds remaining in the half, helping UC score five points in one trip down the floor.
At the break, Tiffin had five players with two personal fouls each, including 6-foot-3 Jasmine Watts and second-leading scorer Savanah Richards, and another player with three. As a result, UC went 12 of 15 at the foul line to enhance its lead.
The Dragons rallied from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit in their 85-83 regional semifinal win against Glenville State on Saturday, but history didn’t repeat itself Monday.
Their leading scorer on the season, Aarion Nichols (16.3 ppg) didn’t get her first field goal until the 5:40 mark of the third quarter and was 1 of 11 from the floor through three quarters as her team trailed 64-37. She finished with eight points.
UC called off the dogs with 2:57 left in the game, taking most of its starters off the floor holding a 77-47 lead. Reserves Abby Lee and Haley Moore each chipped in eight key points for UC before the rest of the subs got in.
Tiffin, which saw a seven-game win streak snapped with the loss, was led by 13 points from Jada Tate. The Dragons ended the game shooting 29% from the floor with 16 turnovers.
UC fell behind 10-0 and 26-12 in its regional semifinal game Saturday, but showed no signs of a slow start Monday.
“I think we were a little more comfortable,'' Kelly said, “and we had great energy all day long. The past game, we started slow, so we wanted to come out tonight and defend and continue to fight from there.''
With the national tournament being played at the same arena as the Atlantic Regional, UC gets a head start on getting acclimated to the big stage.
“Absolutely,'' Kelly said, “especially for getting used to the baskets and the rims and knowing the arena. It'll be a big advantage for us, hopefully, in shooting.''