WALTHAM, Mass. – For the fourth straight year, and the 20th time in the last 27 years, the Bentley University women's basketball team is back in the NCAA Division II East Regional championship game.
The nation's number-one ranked Division II team punched their ticket and kept their perfect record intact as the Falcons pulled away down the stretch for a 79-63 victory over Stonehill College in the semifinals Saturday night at the Dana Center. It was the 31st win this season for coach Barbara Stevens' team, matching the best start in program history (1992).
Bentley will host third-seeded LIU Post, an 85-83 winner over second-seeded Adelphi University in the other semifinal, Monday night at 7 pm with a berth in the Elite Eight awaiting the victor.
All-Region grad student Courtney Finn (Winthrop/Winthrop HS) and freshman forward Jen Gemma (Milton/Fontbonne Academy) each had 16 points to lead four double-digit scorers for the Falcons, and senior All-America Lauren Battista (North Easton/Oliver Ames HS) followed with 15, including a pair of killer threes during the final five minutes.
The Falcons, who took the lead for good with a 16-2 first-half surge, used second-half spurts of 6-0, 7-0 and 8-0 to first hold off the Skyhawks and then put the game away.
A pair of driving lay-ups by senior point guard Christiana Bakolas (Manchester, N.H./Central HS) and two Finn free throws after a Stonehill tech produced the first double-digit lead of the second half, 48-37 with 14:45 left.
After Stonehill used a 13-6 run to get back within four at 54-50 midway through the second, the Falcons answered with seven unanswered. Bakolas sank one of two at the line, Gemma made a pair of driving lay-ups, fifth-year senior forward Caleigh Crowell (Harwich/Worcester Academy) scored on an inbound pass from Bakolas and the differential was back to 11, 61-50 with just over seven to play.
Any hopes the 19-10 Skyhawks had of a comeback were dashed with a run of eight unanswered, beginning with a drive to the basket by Gemma with 3:30 to play. Senior All-Conference forward Jacqui Brugliera (Fitchburg/Wachusett Reg. HS) followed with a three-point play and Battista delivered the dagger, hitting a top-of-the-three with 1:50 left to make it 76-59.
"In the second half, we made some great plays," praised Stevens after her 913th career victory.
Early mistakes by Bentley, along with three-pointers by senior Mary Louise Dixon (Wellesley) and sophomore Ashley Gendron (Auburn, N.H.) for the Skyhawks, gave Stonehill a 12-8 lead at the first media timeout.
"I think our shakiness was shown by the turnovers and not making smart decisions," said Stevens, whose words were echoed Finn, "But once we settled in, we were ok."
The Bentley bench fueled the start of the 16-2 run that turned a four-point deficit into a 32-22 Falcon advantage with 5:55 to play. Gemma converted a three-point play and senior forward Tyler Parker Kimball (New Britain, Conn./New Britain HS) did the same, 30 seconds after she took a charge at the defensive end. Lay-ups by Gemma and Finn made it 26-20 with 9:19 to play.
"We have such quality people coming off the bench," said Stevens. "That's what helps to make us such a good team."
Following a Skyhawk lay-up, the run continued with a Crowell three, a baseline jumper by Battista and a Brugliera free throw producing a ten-point bulge, 32-22 with 5:55 on the first-half clock. The advantage was down to five at the break after the visitors blanked the Falcons over the final three minutes of the half.
Finn finished four of six from the field and was perfect on her seven free throw attempts. Gemma, in 24 minutes off the bench, hit seven of 11 overall and matched Finn with five rebounds. Eleven of Battista's 15 came in the second half, and Crowell continued her strong play with 12 points, seven boards, two steals and a block.
Dixon paced Stonehill with 15 points and seven rebounds in her final career game, and sophomore Shannon Brown (Las Vegas, Nev.) followed with 13 off the bench.
Bentley finished with a slight advantage in field goal percentage (47-45 percent) and rebounds (37-32) and committed two fewer turns, 15-17. As they were in Friday's first-round win over Bloomfield, free throws were another story as the Falcons made 20 of 24 at the stripe and the Skyhawks attempted only seven, making just three.
LIU Post received 71 points from the backcourt trio of Kiki Sears (career-high 28 with seven triples), Alexis Peters (22) and Chelsea Williams (21).
Sears' final triple put the Pioneers in front to stay at 81-79 with 1:48 left and a block by Shayne Gatling just before the buzzer sealed the outcome.
Bentley and LIU Post, which will be making its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance, met four days before Christmas on Long Island with the Falcons prevailing by a dozen, 71-59.
Bentley will be looking for its third Elite Eight trip in four years after being stunned by Dowling College in last year's regional final, a loss that has motivated this year's team ever since.