ERIE – Stephanie Michael spent spring break at a sun-baked beach last year and didn’t enjoy the experience.
This year, Michael has spent the first few days of spring break in snow-covered Erie.
“That’s OK. There’s no place I’d rather be than here,” Michael said with a smile.
That’s because Michael, a senior guard, and her California University women’s basketball teammates are in the NCAA Division II tournament and making the most of the experience. The Vulcans failed to make the tournament last season for the first time in a decade, which gave Michael an opportunity to head to the beach, though she preferred to spend the week on the basketball court. This year, Michael and the Vulcans seem to be making up for lost time.
California (22-8) will play its PSAC West Division rival and top-seeded Gannon (30-4) tonight at the Hammermill Center in the final of the Atlantic Regional. Tipoff is 7 p.m.
The winner advances to the Elite Eight, which will be played March 26-29 in San Antonio.
California, which is the seventh seed in the regional, received the final at-large berth to the tournament. The Vulcans, however, pulled off an 80-72 upset of second-seeded Edinboro in the first round Friday. On Saturday, Cal never trailed against sixth-seeded Glenville State but needed Michael’s driving layup with five seconds remaining to beat the Pioneers, 81-79.
Gannon and Cal will be meeting for the fourth time this season, and second time in two weeks. Gannon, ranked No. 7 in the most-recent USA Today Top 25, has won two of the three meetings, including both games played in Erie. However, Golden Knights head coach Cleve Wright is taking nothing for granted.
“Cal is a very good team. They beat us at their place; that should tell us how good they are,” Wright said. “They’re in the Sweet 16 and we know it’s going to be a battle. We’re not assuming anything. We have a lot of respect for Cal and we know we’re going to have to play well.”
Gannon defeated Cal 65-53 in the regular season at the Hammermill Center and 77-50 in the quarterfinals of the PSAC tournament March 5. The Vulcans upset the Golden Knights 81-73 at the Convocation Center in February. That win was a springboard for Cal, which has won eight of its last 10 games.
“For us, that win over Gannon was huge,” said Michael, is averaging 24 points in the regional. “We had been inconsistent for most of the season, but if we can play the way we did in that game, we know that we can beat anybody.”
The Vulcans have been impressive in the regional. They have not trailed by more than three points in the two games.
“We play off emotion,” Cal coach Jess Strom said. “We’re also pretty good at game management. If we can get the lead late, we’re confident that we can maintain it.”
Getting a lead against Gannon will be difficult, especially on the Golden Knights’ home court, where they are 15-0 this season. Jen Papich, a 6-1 junior, leads a deep Gannon attack, averaging 12.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
Cal will likely need another big game from Michael and Elena Antonenko, who had 16 points and nine rebounds against Glenville. Antonenko, a 6-3 junior forward from Moscow, Russia, and the Vulcans’ only healthy low-post player, blocked a Glenville State shot in the final minute that set up Michael’s game-winner.
Antonenko’s play has improved down the stretch as she’s averaging 12 points over Cal’s last seven games.
“Elena does a lot of the little things that you don’t see in the boxscore,” Strom said. “She had 16 points and nine rebounds against Glenville, but she had the blocked shot at the end, and also made key shot that gave us a late lead. Her play has improved.”
Strom said playing Gannon is much like facing Edinboro, another PSAC West rival. The Vulcans have Golden Knights have played against and seen each other on tape so many times throughout the season that are no remaining secrets.
Strom also said it’s no surprise that two teams from the West Division are in the regional final. Gannon won the West’s regular-season title while Cal finished fourth.
“Everybody knew the PSAC and the West Division were strong,” Strom said. “This speaks for the strength of our conference. In our conference, anyone can beat any other team.”