ERIE, Pa. – Drury dug itself a deep early hole, stormed back to take the lead, but then watched top-ranked and unbeaten Bentley pull away down the stretch for a 74-66 victory over the No. 6 Lady Panthers in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight late Tuesday night at the Erie Insurance Arena.
Coach Steve Huber‘s Lady Panthers finished the season with a 27-4 mark, but not before playing Bentley’s Falcons to only their second game decided by fewer than double-digits in what has become a 33-0 season for wire-to-wire leader in the top spot of the WBCA/USA TODAY Top 25 national poll this season.
Sanayika Shields matched her career-high with 21 points and added a game-high 11 rebounds to lead the Lady Panthers, who also got 16 points from Annie Armstrong and 10 points from Paige Wilson on a night when Bentley accomplished its goal – keeping DU’s 6-foot-7 standout, Amber Dvorak, under wraps.
Facing double-teams the entire night, Dvorak grabbed nine rebounds, but managed just two points on 1-for-9 shooting and fouled out in 22 minutes of playing time, snapping a streak of 24 consecutive games in which the Minnesota transfer and All-Midwest Region and All-GLVC First Team choice had scored in double-figures.
Nevertheless, a gritty bunch of Lady Panthers threw a real scare into the Falcons particularly with about 10 minutes to go, when the Lady Panthers – who trailed by 13 points at one point in the first half – took a 52-48 lead after Armstrong’s 3-pointer with 9:50 to play. It was the first time all season Bentley had trailed in a game with less than 10 minutes remaining.
But the Falcons responded like the veteran team they are, with seven players either seniors or graduate students on a squad making its third Elite Eight appearance in the last four years. Bentley reeled off a 9-0 run over the next 3:24, with Courtney Finn’s layup making it a 57-52 lead for the Falcons.
The Lady Panthers had it back down to a three-point deficit (64-61) with 2:56 to play after another Armstrong 3-pointer, but the Falcons countered with back-to-back buckets from three-time All-America and senior forward Lauren Battista and Finn – who had 30 points and 10 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes – to finally squelch Drury’s last true threat.
“I’m very proud of my team tonight,” first-year DU coach Steve Huber said. “The best decision I ever made in my life, probably other than marrying my wife, was leaving a great institution at Creighton and coming to Drury and being able to be a part of 10 kids that bonded, bought into me and bought into a team … that wasn’t given much respect nationally and ended up going 27-4 and in my opinion, probably losing to the national champions.
“It was two good teams playing tonight, and we lost to a special team … that’s what it all boils down to.”
The Lady Panthers couldn’t hit shots early and fell behind 15-4 in the game’s first five and a half minutes, got the deficit back down to six, then watched Bentley push it back to 13 (29-16) on Jen Gemma’s jumper with 6:24 to go in the half. But Drury answered with a 12-4 run over the next five minutes, fueled by five points from freshman reserve guard Paige Wilson, and eventually trailed just 36-32 at the half.
“We have a ‘never back down’ mentality,” Shields said. “We weren’t just going to let them blow us out.”
Led by Shields’ 11 boards and nine from Dvorak, Drury outrebounded a Bentley team that led the nation in rebounding margin, beating its foes by an average of 11.5 rebounds per game. It was the first time all season the Falcons had lost the rebounding battle to a foe.
Drury also held Bentley to .397 shooting (on 23 of 58), only the third time this season the Falcons had been held below 40 percent. The Lady Panthers, however, made just 23 of 59 shots (39 percent), including 5 of 19 from 3-point range.
Finn hit 7 of 11 shots, including 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range, and made 12 of 15 free throws to get her career-high 30 points. Battista, saddled with foul problems that limited her to 11 minutes in the first half, scored 13 of her 20 points after halftime as the Bentley duo rallied the Falcons, particularly late, to move into Wednesday’s second semifinal against Cal Poly-Pomona. It was the 915th career win for Bentley coach Barbara Stevens, who now has a Falcons team in the Final Four for the ninth time since 1989.
Meanwhile, it was the final game in a Drury uniform for three seniors – the graduate student Dvorak as well as Kylie Williamson and Bethanie Funderburk. Dvorak leaves as the Lady Panthers’ record-holder in blocked shots in a single season with 60 after swatting two more on Tuesday, and her 502 points were the fifth-most in a Drury single-season; Williamson scored 749 points (tied for 15th on the all-time DU list) and grabbed 434 rebounds (eighth) in four years; and Funderburk finishes as Drury’s No. 2 all-time scorer with 1,716 points and No. 7 on its rebounds list with 518.
But more importantly, their legacy will say they took a Drury team that faced transfers and turmoil in the preseason – leading to a slap-in-the-face, fifth-place projection by the league coaches in the GLVC West Division poll – and turned it into the third Lady Panthers team to make it to an Elite Eight in the program’s 14-year history.
“I love our three seniors … Bethanie and Kylie won every wind sprint this year, and along with Nique, they came ready their senior year and did everything they needed to do to get us here,” Huber said. “We’d have liked to have played two more games, but that wasn’t the case. And a year ago, Amber’s a 6-7 girl in a (University of Minnesota) marching band. She came a long way, and not just as a basketball player. I can’t put into words how much she’s grown as a young lady.”
And with a nucleus returning of Shields – who hit 8 of 10 shots and played 37 minutes – Shelby White, Armstrong, Wilson and Hannah Dressler, Huber says the Elite Eight ought to expect a return visit from the Lady Panthers.
“This girl to my right (Shields) and her teammates, I promise, will be back here next year,” Huber said. “We’ve got something in us and we’re not satisfied. I’ll be honest, I thought we were going to win tonight. But we lost to a class organization, a class coach and a couple of very good players (Battista and Finn) who showed up very big at the end of the game tonight. But that takes nothing away from what my 10 players did tonight. I think they played a great basketball game. I became a better basketball coach tonight, and I think they’ll become better players next year.”
Added Shields: “As a team, I think we’re already ready to get back in the gym to work to get back here next year.”