ERIE – The game went from smooth to shaky to scary, and finally, with less than two minutes remaining, to frightening.
The California University women’s basketball team’s lead – one they had enjoyed since the opening basket – and grasp on the game was slipping away. Glenville State, the nation’s highest-scoring team, had wiped away a 15-point deficit and was in possession of the ball with less than 40 seconds to play in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region semifinals Saturday night.
The Vulcans were hanging on by their fingernails under the constant defensive pressure from Glenville State, and their suddenly remarkable season was on the verge of falling over the cliff and into extinction. But just before Cal lost its grip, junior forward Elena Antonenka and senior guard Stephanie Michael used their right arms to pull Cal to safety.
Antonenka swatted away a potential go-ahead shot by Glenville, and Michael followed by making a driving layup from the right side of the lane with five seconds left that gave California a thrilling 81-79 victory at Gannon University’s Hammermill Center.
The win sends Cal (22-8) into Monday’s 7 p.m. regional final against Gannon (30-4), a 64-46 winner over IUP. It’s quite a remarkable accomplishment for the Vulcans, who received the region’s final at-large berth and finished the regular season in fourth place in the PSAC’s West Division.
Following Antonenko’s block and rebound of a 12-foot jump shot from the lane by Glenville’s Kenyona Simmons, Cal called a timeout with 29 seconds left to set up its final shot. There was little doubt that Michael, who scored a team-high 23 points, would be attempting that shot.
“It was one of the plays we ran all year,” Cal coach Jess Strom said. “We move our perimeter people around and put it in Steph’s hands. She’s hit big shots for us all year. She’s a senior – our only senior – so who better than her to take the final shot?”
Michael took a pass near the top of the key and drove down the side of the lane, lofting a contested layup over a leaping Glenville defender.
“Cal is so difficult to defend,” Glenville coach Bunky Harkleroad said. “They are bigger, faster and stronger than us and they can score at all five positions. We try to take away layups and three-pointers, but Cal can hit the midrange shots. That’s just a very good basketball team that is a tough matchup for us.”
Glenville (27-4) had one last chance to force overtime or take its only lead of the game. The Pioneers passed the ball to Ginny Mills, a smooth-shooting guard who scored a game-high 37 points, which included 7-for-11 shooting from three-point range. Mills quickly dribbled upcourt, and after maneuvering inside the three-point line made a pass to Aesha Peters at the left side of the lane. Peters’ quick shot went in the basket, but it clearly came after the final buzzer sounded.
“We put the ball in the hands of the best player (Mills) in the region,” Harkleroad said. “She carried us all year. We came up just short this time.”
Glenville, which made 21 of 51 three-pointers and scored 111 points in an upset of third-seeded and defending national champion Shaw (N.C.) in the first round Friday, was on the short end of the score for most of the game against Cal. The Vulcans held Glenville to 10-for-20 shooting from three-point range and seized control with an impressive start.
Cal came out running with Glenville and scored the game’s first nine points. The Vulcans led 29-15 after 11 minutes by beating Glenville’s full-court press for easy layups or short jump shots. It seemed as the Vulcans were on their way to a repeat of their 47-point win over Glenville in a game played back in mid-November.
“That game was close late in the first half, then our kids just pouted and put their heads downs,” Harkleroad said.
This time, however, Glenville didn’t panic. The Pioneers kept pressing, kept substituting – the Pioneers made 25 substitutions in the first four minutes of the second half alone – and kept trying to wear the out Vulcans, who are down to only eight healthy players. One of those eight, backup guard Ryah Gadson, spent much of the first half riding a stationary bike to keep a knee and hamstring loose.
“I was worried about fatigue,” Strom said. “They were playing 10, 11, 12 players. Every kid would sprint for a minute and then go out. We have people who play 36 minutes. I was worried about it. But heart makes up for a lot. I’m sure our kids are going to be tired (today), but it’s going to be a good tired.”
Maybe it was Glenville’s relentless defensive pressure and fast-paced style of play, or maybe it was simply too much Mills, but Cal’s lead methodically dwindled. Mills scored 21 first-half points and 30 in the game’s first 26 minutes. Glenville pulled to within 50-43 at halftime, and finally tied the score, at 77-77, after consecutive drives by Kenyona Simmons that resulted in baskets.
“If we had hit some shots early, it might have been a different outcome,” Harkleroad said. “We’d start getting something good to happen for us, then we’d cough it right back up.”
Cal regained the lead at 79-77 when Antonenko – the Vulcans’ only healthy low-post player – scored from under the basket off a pass from Gadson. Glenville tied it again on a backdoor cut and layup by Kenyell Goodson with 1:17 remaining.
Michael then missed a jumper from the wing, but Antonenko’s blocked shot and rebound gave the Vulcans another possession with the score tied. Michael did not miss this time
“I was so exhausted,” Michael said. “I think we all were playing on pure emotion. We were so focused.”
Antonenko finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. Irina Kukolj had a strong first half and finished with 12 points for Cal.
Point guard Jena Elez was the only Glenville player other than Mills in double figures. She had 12 points and six assists, but committed eight turnovers.