Bryan Women Win AAC Tournament Championship

Saturday, February 24, 2018
For the second year in a row, the Bryan College women’s basketball team captured the Appalachian Athletic Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament Championship with a rewarding 75-68 victory over No. 1 seed Reinhardt University (Ga.) in the title game on Saturday. 

Last year, the Lions made history by winning four games in four days to secure the crown, which had never been done before in the AAC women’s tournament. This year it took only three games, but it did involve a playoff game prior to going to Kingsport.
Bryan and Reinhardt, both conference Co-Regular-Season champions, met three days before the start of the tournament in a showdown that would determine who would get the top-seed going into the tournament and the league’s automatic bid to the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship. Even though it was the Eagles who were victorious in the playoff, it would be the Lions who would ultimately rise to the top. 

In the semifinal round on Friday, Bryan pieced together an impressive 81-69 win over No. 6 seed Allen University (S.C.), punching their ticket to nationals with the league’s only other spot headed to Sioux City, Iowa.

The triumph by the Lions and Eagles on their respective sides of the bracket during the semis orchestrated what would be their fourth bout during the 2017-18 season in the AAC tournament finale. They split their regular-season meetings, Reinhardt won the playoff, but it was Bryan who rose to the occasion when a conference title hung in the balance. 

The first quarter remained close as Reinhardt slowly edged past Bryan. Little did the Eagles know that it would be their only positive period of the day as the Lions clawed their way back into the game and continuously grew their intensity. When Bryan took control of the lead just before the first half ended, they would never look back. Reinhardt forced a brief tie early in the third quarter, but Bryan got back in front and extended separation. During the final quarter, the Lions developed the difference to double-digits and maintained the cushion until the final buzzer sounded. 

Tournament MVP Amber Levi was the first to put Bryan on the board to match Reinhardt 2-2 following the opening tipoff. Deandra Luna, another member of the All-Tournament team, sank a try from deep that tied the score 6-6. A successful and-one play spurred the Eagles into the lead where they would stay for the rest of the quarter. In the 6th-minute, both Luna and Shayla Ludy capitalized in the paint to cut the deficit to one, 9-8 and then 11-10. It was quiet over the next four minutes with the only made baskets being a fastbreak layup and a mid-range jumper by the Eagles, moving their advantage to 15-10. Levi cashed in a three-pointer at the two-minute mark, but it was their last points posted in the period as Reinhardt tacked on four more points to go ahead 19-13.

Bryan followed Reinhardt’s quick make to start quarter number two with a game-changing 8-0 run to tie the score 21-21. Even though it wouldn’t prevent the Eagles from soaring back for a lead, it was enough to catch Reinhardt off guard and slow down their play. The Lion’s other representative to the All-Tournament team and this year’s AAC Freshman of the Year Karli Combs used her precision to nail down a long trey, putting Bryan up 26-24. Reinhardt came back and nabbed a four-point lead at the midway point of the period. It was short lived though as Levi hit a three, Emmy Allen made the second of two foul shots, Allison used a strong move to finish down low, and Levi made the most of Tristan McClellan’s steal with a layup to cap eight straight points. The run propelled Bryan in the lead 34-30 as the first half came to a close. 

Following a three-pointer made by Luna for the first points of the second half, Reinhardt battled for a 7-0 run to tie the game at 37’s. Ludy scored on a second-chance opportunity for Bryan to subdue the momentum shift by the Eagles. A pair of free throws by Levi and a shot from the perimeter by Combs brought the Lions right back to a seven-point lead, 37-44 with 5:18 on the clock. The Lions controlled the lead and saw it grow to nine points in the final minutes, but the Eagles chipped in a fastbreak layup and last-second three-pointer to slim the gap to 51-47. 

Seven consecutive points tallied by Bryan to begin the final period was all they needed to end the hopes of Reinhardt. With a double-digit lead at 58-47, the Eagles found it difficult to make any headway as the Lions countered each of their makes with one or two baskets that only put Reinhardt further behind. At 1:33 the Eagles decided to foul and force the Lions to seal the game on their free throw shooting, which is exactly what they did. Down the stretch, Bryan was a perfect 10-of-10 with Combs making eight of them. The combination of success at the foul line and defensive stops forced Reinhardt to meet their fate as Bryan prevailed 75-58. Bryan improved their overall record to 25-9, while Reinhardt fell to 26-9.

The Lions outshot the Eagles 38.2 percent compared 34.8 percent and were a scorching 45.5 percent behind the arc while Reinhardt shot 35 percent from long-range. Not only did the Eagles total only nine free throw attempts and make just 33.3 percent, but the Lions total 27 and converted on 23. Bryan won the battle on the boards 42-41 and committed three fewer turnovers, 16-19. 

Levi turned in an MVP performance as she completed her second straight double-double and fourth of the season with 21 points and 11 rebounds. She finished 6-of-12, including 3-of-5 behind the three-point line. Combs went 3-of-5 from downtown and 10-of-10 at the foul line for 19 points, while also aiding with eight rebounds. Luna was Bryan’s other double-figure performer after collecting 11 points. Ludy trailed with eight points and Sarah Cain yielded five. While Allison scored four points, she also helped on the boards by matching Combs with eight for the team-high. The duo of Tristan McClellan and Marlee Sells had three points apiece, with McClellan leading all Lions with six assists. Allen got on the board with a lone free throw. 

The Lions now turn their attention to the 27th Annual NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship that will take place Mar. 7-13 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City. Bryan Head Coach Jason Smith has led his Lions to three national tournament appearances in the past four seasons and is in search of his first opening-round win with the Lions. 

The bracket reveal for the national tournament will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 7pm. 

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