Trailing Greensboro College 31-25 at half-time of the USA South Championship game, Christopher Newport University knew they had to step it up in the second half.
“They had a great game plan,” explained head coach John Krikorian. “They tried to slow the game down and they made some tough shots.”
“They wanted to slow the game down,” added senior guard Conley Taylor. “They didn’t want to run with us.”
CNU cut the score to 31-37 after the half, and then scored 17 straight points to blow past Greensboro and take a big 48-37 lead. The closest the Pride would come to the CNU lead was 65-62, but clutch free throws kept the game out of reach and gave the Captains the USA South title.
“I never doubted,” sophomore forward Tra Benefield said when asked if he ever questioned who would win. “I just kept picturing Greensboro on our court cutting down the nets and celebrating.”
The key play of the game came during the 17-point run, when Benefield hit a big three-pointer right after junior guard Paul Meredith made two free-throws, to give the Captains a six-point lead.
Meredith did not start the game, but came away with nine points, five assists and hit free-throws when CNU was struggling to get points on the board.
Leading the way for the Captains was Benefield and freshman forward Nik Biberaj who each had 19 points. This season the Captains have relied on the three-point shot to take down opponents, but they had a different strategy in the Championship Game. Biberaj was targeted early and often for CNU, as the Captains looked to pound the ball through the smaller Greensboro.
“Incredible job,” Benefield said. “It was our game plan to get it in the post and just play off of them.”
Both Benefield and Biberaj were named to the All-Tournament team, an honor bestowed on a collection of players who performed the best during the USA South Tournament.
Joining them was Taylor, who was also named Tournament Most Valuable Player. Taylor scored 15 points in the Championship Game and had two blocks on defense.
Greensboro was led by the shooting of freshman Devonta Davis, who sunk four three-pointers and finished with 14 points. While the Captains were making their run, the Pride was helpless to score points, except for Davis who sunk long three-pointers to keep the game close.
“That kid is so good, he can really shoot the ball,” said Krikorian. “There’s no preparing for someone that will shoot in your face from 25 feet away and make it.”
By the end of the game, Taylor and Benefield put more pressure on him, and this increased defensive pressure seemed to get to Davis, as he had an air ball and a badly missed shot to close out the game.
“I think we made him a little uncomfortable, and those guys being able to step up a little closer defensivly to him might have been the difference,” Krikorian explained.
With the win, Christopher Newport University advances to the NCAA Tournament and will take on Western Connecticut State in the first round. Western Connecticut is 20-6 for the year and earned an at-large bid in the Little East Conference.
The first round game will be on Friday, March 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn.