The Johnson C. Smith players and their coach could not stop smiling.
And a few moments later on Friday at the CIAA Tournament, the Virginia Union women and their coach strained to hold back the tears.
The queens have been dethroned – though they might rise again.
North Carolina fans can book their tickets for Saturday action, and the city of Charlotte can brace to watch the coronation of one of its own, when the CIAA decides its champions on Saturday.
In a major upset, the Golden Bulls women defeated defending CIAA champion and 2017 Elite 8 participant Virginia Union 81-75. The victory avenged two regular-season losses to the Panthers.
Blaire Thomas and Monique Hall led all scorers with 18 points, Anika Jones added 17, MaryAnna Moore pulled down 17 rebounds to help a North Carolina-based team beat an out-of-state team – men’s or women’s for the first time all week.
J.C. Smith (21-7) will play Virginia State (22-7) in Saturday’s 4 p.m. final.
Rachael Pecota led Virginia Union (23-4) with 16, while Brittany Jackson and Alexis Johnson added 14. All-American Lady Walker was held to 11 points and six rebounds.
J.C. Smith coach Stephen Joyner Jr., whose father’s men’s team was eliminated Wednesday, knew what was at stake for the family, the city of Charlotte and the campus – practically up the street from Spectrum Center.
“It definitely felt great to get over that hump — to Saturday – but the job is not done,” said Joyner, who will coach in his first CIAA tournament final.
His father, Stephen Joyner Sr., has won three CIAA championships and his first cousin Ed Joyner Jr. has won three Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference women’s titles at Hampton.
Joyner Jr., who was a player on one of his father’s CIAA title teams at J.C. Smith said he understands what Friday’s victory means, on a number of levels.
“I grew up on that campus… I was at Bojangles’ the other day, and someone called my name and said, ‘I used to change that boy’s diapers.’”
Golden Bulls junior guard Monique Hall agreed about the closeness of the J.C. Smith community, which remains intact, even for an event that attracts 200,000 visitors to the city and pours close to $60 million in the local economy.
“Our school spirit is really based off family,” Hall said. “I’ve never been part of a team with so much love and support.”
Joyner praised Virginia Union, which he said “represented the conference well…, but (junior forward) Blair Thomas can tell you from the moment I recruited her it was about Virginia Union.”
Panthers coach AnnMarie Gilbert, who admitted there had been tears in her team’s locker room, said the Golden Bulls “beat us to the loose balls; they made the hustle plays,” in a game that was tied at 61 headed into the fourth quarter.
“Plus, we made only 11 of 23 free throws,” Gilbert said. “You’re not going to win many games when you shoot 11 of 23 from the free throw line.”
Gilbert said there “has to be something to it,” on how difficult it is to beat a team three times in the same season. “I guess that third time, their will to win has to be greater,” she said.
Gilbert said she hopes to use Friday’s loss as a teachable moment for her team, ranked as high as No. 2 nationally, as it moves forward in the NCAA Division II regionals.
Gilbert said her team has to do a better job of covering up for each other’s weaknesses.
“We want to see that teachable moment,” Gilbert said, “but it’s got to be in their hearts and in their heads.”
For some, Friday’s defeat answers the question about whether the 2016-17 Panthers are better than the 2016 regional finalists led by Division II Player of the Year Kiana Johnson – now playing professionally in Finland.
In the men’s first semifinal, Bowie State (15-14) squeaked past Livingstone (11-17) 71-69 in a game in which the teams swapped leads several times.
Despite the teams’ records, the outcome was somewhat of an upset, as the Blue Bears, who campus is located 45 minutes away in Salisbury, N.C., had made the championship game in four of the last five CIAA tournaments.
“This is unfamiliar territory for us,” coach Livingstone coach James Stinson said. “But we have to accept it. It was a good run; that was a blessing in itself.”
Michael Briscoe led Bowie State with 24 points, but perhaps more damaging were the six steals that contributed to 30 Livingstone turners in which the Bulldogs scored 34 points.
Meanwhile, a surprising run continued for Fayetteville State (13-15), which pulled off a 64-58 win over No. 1 seed Virginia State (22-6).
The Broncos’ resurgence was fueled by dynamic point guard Joshua Dawson (28 points) and his former Kinston High teammate Michael Tyson (12 points, 11 rebounds).
The two are former teammates Lakers swingman Brandon Ingram, and Dawson is the nephew of former NBA stars Jerry Stackhouse and Craig Dawson.
Trailing by as many as eight in the second half, Dawson electrified the crowd when he hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Broncos a 56-54 lead with 2:16 to play.
He added another long bomb with 1:30 to play to stretch the lead to 61-54. From there the No. 4 seeded Broncos played keep away and made their free throws to pull off the upset of the No. 1 seeded Trojans.