The Shaw women’s basketball team will seek its third straight conference championship as the CIAA tournament gets under way Tuesday at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.
The Bears, who are also the defending NCAA Division II national champions, finished a game behind Fayetteville State in the CIAA South. The two teams tied in the division (8-2), but the Broncos had the better conference record.
Shaw has a first-round bye and will take on the winner of the Winston-Salem State, Bowie State matchup on Wednesday at 5 p.m. The Bears (22-4) have won five of their last six games, including a televised 88-58 thrashing of Johnson C. Smith Saturday at Southeast Raleigh High School.
“It was good for our seniors to go out like that,” coach Jacques Curtis said. “We’ve had a good year. To make it a better year, we have to go out and try to win the CIAA tournament. That’s what is on the minds of our seniors right now.”
Shaw will have to do it without the services of senior guard Sequoyah Griffin, a key player in last year’s national title run. Griffin did not play in the J.C. Smith game and is out for the season with a knee injury.
“We need to get used to playing without Sequoyah, so it was good to get a game without her right before the tournament,” Curtis said. “We need to see what other people can do.”
Across town, St. Augustine’s is the No. 4 seed and will start off the tournament Tuesday morning at 11 against Chowan.
St. Aug’s (11-14) could use a fresh start after losing five of its past six games, including the last three. A bright spot that bodes well for the future, however, has been the play of the rookies. Four Falcons were named to the five-team all-rookie team, with guard Regime McCombs winning CIAA Rookie of the Year. McCombs averages 11 points a game, tops among CIAA freshmen.
“I am pretty shocked,” she said. “I never imagined it. I give credit to my coaches and teammates. Everybody had faith in me and my shot.”
After losing six of seven games, Shaw is on a three-game win streak and is seeded No. 5. The Bears (16-10) play No. 6 North seed Chowan on Tuesday at 9 p.m.
Shaw seems to have turned the corner after the departure of leading scorer Karron Johnson three weeks ago. The Bears’ turnaround began on Feb. 16, when coach Cleo Hill Jr. got his first win over St. Aug’s coach Lonnie Blow.
“We had a couple of meetings with the players and discussed the small things, and we kind of went for it at that point,” Hill said. “Our guys have bought in, and we’ve started playing a lot better.”
Last year heading into tourney week, the Bears were riding a 21-game win streak and a No. 5 national ranking, but were upset by WSSU in the semifinals. With the pressure off, Hill said the team has nothing to lose.
“We are going in playing how we want to play,” he said. “Sometimes that’s half the battle. I don’t know if we are peaking, but we are playing well right now.”
For the Falcons, the tourney couldn’t come soon enough. After holding a two-game first-place lead on Feb. 2, St. Aug’s lost its remaining five regular-season contests.
But the last time Blow stood on the floor of TWC Arena in 2010, he was hoisting a championship trophy. Blow took an assistant coaching job at Old Dominion University after the 2010 season before returning to St. Aug’s in 2012.
“Tournament play is different,” Blow said. “Sometimes, it brings out the best in teams. You have to do the little things. Everything becomes important (in the tourney).”
The No. 4 seed Falcons will meet the winner of Virginia State and Fayetteville State Wednesday at 7 p.m.