Basketball – Elite Treat

Nettie Blake must’ve really wanted to go to Texas.

The Gannon University women searched for more than 30 minutes for any kind of offensive rhythm in Gannon’s 50-47 win over a determined California (Pa.) team in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional championship Monday night at the Hammermill Center.

Blake helped them find it.

When Blake re-entered the game following a breather with seven minutes left and Gannon and Cal tied at 27, the 6-foot-1-inch sophomore took over the game by scoring nine straight points to give Gannon its first lead of the defensive-minded game.

Using baby hooks and power moves in the paint on five straight possessions, Blake muscled her way through California’s stout defense, sending Gannon to a national quarterfinal game Tuesday against No. 2 Ashland, which defeated Wayne State 72-63 Monday.

“I wasn’t going to let my teammates down,” said Blake, who was named tournament MVP after finishing with 12 points and 16 rebounds. “I took the faith that they had in me and I put it back in myself and I was like ‘OK, if it’s going to fall, it’s going to fall now, so you got to go.’ And I just kept drilling them and they eventually started to fall and I looked up and we were ahead again.”

Gannon coach Cleve Wright said he wasn’t surprised by Blake taking over the game.

“We were literally on her back and I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Wright said. “I told her after the game she can be better and she said, ‘I know.’”

For a while for No. 7 Gannon, it appeared like nothing could fall, as the Knights shot less than 23 percent from the field in the first half and scored a minuscule 13 points. Cal managed to score just 18.

“I couldn’t have asked for them to play harder or better defense tonight,” Cal coach Jess Strom said. “Offense is our Achilles heel sometimes all year, but we make it up with our defense.”

Cal used swarming defense to contest every pass and badger Gannon’s ball-handlers, who narrowly missed numerous open looks.

“The first thing I talked about (at halftime) was what great defense we were playing in the halfcourt,” Wright said. “We knew we were getting good shots. I just felt like we needed to be more focused at the rim.”

California maintained a slim lead for the first 10 minutes of the second half until Brittany Batts nailed a 3-pointer and Doriyon Glass made an and-one while falling to the floor. Glass hit the free throw, one of her game-high 15 points, to tie the game at 27, sending 1,403 spirited fans at the Hammermill Center into a frenzy.

“The crowd was pretty sweet tonight,” Batts said.

It included most of Gannon’s Final Four team from 2010, who held signs and cheered while sitting directly behind the Knights’ bench. Former point guard and assistant coach Tiffany Crocker sat behind Wright holding a “Believe in Cleve” sign.

“They built the foundation for this team,” Wright said. “These guys can tell you, they text each other, they’re together, they’re a part of it. Those girls that were behind us wanted it so badly for this group and they’re very proud of Gannon.

“That’s pretty cool. I don’t know if there are many schools where you see alumni come back like that in force and sit behind like that and be so supportive, but I think that’s attributed to what our culture is at Gannon.”

Cal (22-9) continued to fight to the end, cutting Gannon’s nine-point lead with 46 seconds left to three when Stephanie Michael hit back-to-back 3-pointers. The Vulcans had a chance to tie it, but had a pair of 3-point attempts blocked as time expired.

“I’ve never been on a team that when we’ve been down 10, we came back,” said Michael, who led Cal with 12 points and was named to the all-tournament team. “I loved playing for this team; it was my favorite of all four years, so I couldn’t be happier.”

Gannon improved to 31-4, including a final 16-0 mark at home. Gannon also exacted revenge from the Vulcans, who beat Gannon in the 2009 Atlantic Regional at Cal.

The following season, Gannon ripped off 37 wins in a row.

“It’s very different from the first time,” Wright said. “We had four seniors, a fifth-year senior and other kids who had been here a long time.”

This season’s team features just one senior in Kelsey McCoy, who was a freshman in 2010.

Having advanced this far then, Wright offered this season’s team a bit of advice.

“I don’t ever want us to take anything for granted,” Wright said. “This doesn’t happen all the time.

“The ones who were in the stands there tonight would say the same thing.”

Gannon will play Ashland in the quarterfinals 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Bill Greehey Arena in San Antonio, Texas. Ashland previously defeated Gannon 70-59 in the Knights’ second game of the season on Nov. 10.

 

JOE CUNEO

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