An hour before Bowie State tipped off its NCAA Division II South Atlantic regional final last night at sold-out A.C. Jordan Arena, staff members were already selling four varieties of "Elite Eight" commemorative T-shirts in the arena lobby.
The national quarterfinals will begin as scheduled next Wednesday in Grand Forks, N.D., but Bowie State will not be part of the event. The Bulldogs fell behind by 24 points in the first half and a stirring comeback fell just short in a 70-64 loss to arch-rival Virginia Union.
Bowie Coach Luke D'Alessio can't bare to watch his Bulldogs fall a win short of the Elite 8 in the NCAA Division II tournament. "We just seemed a little half-step slow for some reason."
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
The Panthers (27-4) will play Metropolitan State of Minnesota, an 89-84 winner over South Dakota, in the national quarterfinals. Virginia Union won its seventh regional final in 26 years and will be going for its third national title.
Top-seeded Bowie State (26-5) was down 21 at halftime and still trailed by 14 with 5 1/2 minutes left. Within two minutes, a 10-0 run brought Bowie State within four and the standing-room only crowd of 4,000 was back in the game.
But Darius Hargrove connected on a three-pointer on Virginia Union's ensuing possession, and Bowie never got as close again. Virginia Union made 7 of 10 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
"We didn't want to stop right here; we wanted to go to North Dakota," Bowie State guard Kiyam Holloway said. "Everyone brought what they had, it just wasn't enough."
After years of being dominated by its Richmond rivals, Bowie State had won nine of the schools' past 10 meetings, including five straight. And with home-court advantage in an NCAA regional for the first time, the Bulldogs seemed primed to advance to the quarterfinals for the second time in three years.
Things quickly turned sour, however. Before the tip-off, Bowie State was hit with a technical foul for dunking during warmups. Virginia Union's Luqman Jaaber, the nation's top free throw shooter, hit both shots for a 2-0 lead before the clock had moved. The Panthers then hit four of their first five field-goal attempts and soon led by double digits.
Bowie State, meantime, struggled offensively, scoring two points over an eight-minute stretch in the first half. The Bulldogs average more than 85 points; at halftime, they had just 20 and were 0 for 9 from three-point range.
"I haven't seen our team play like that in a long time," Bowie State Coach Luke D'Alessio said. "We just seemed a little half-step slow for some reason."
Bowie State rallied in the second half behind forward Lee Cook, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds in his final game and was named to the all-regional team.
The deficit, though, had been too large, and so ended a season in which Bowie State was ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time but failed to win its league title or NCAA regional.
"Look at the number one national ranking, look at how much excitement this tournament brought to the school," D'Alessio said. "The only thing now is to try to win a national championship."