The University of the District of Columbia swept past No. 1-ranked Cheyney State last night, 72-69, to win the South Atlantic title of the NCAA Division II tournament.
The win, before a home crowd of 3,250 that included Mayor Marion Barry, makes UDC one of four teams heading to the national semifinals next weekend in Springfield, Mass.
Seven-foot center Earl Jones and 6-7 forward Michael Britt combined for 40 points and 24 rebounds as the home team moved to an early lead and never trailed.
Cheyney State (28-3) did not have the speed or quickness to stay with the fast-breaking Firebirds. Cheyney Coach John Chaney said after the game, "We were going to try the full-court press the second half, but every time we'd shoot, they'd release downcourt." There was no one left for Cheyney to press against.
Jones dominated the rebounding and Britt the shooting early on as UDC (23-5) took a 10-3 lead. Britt had a hand in all those UDC points. But halfway through the period, Jones committed his third foul. With the big center on the bench, Cheyney came within two points.
UDC Coach Wil Jones hastily put his center back in the game, and the lead was back to seven, 33-26, when the buzzer sounded for halftime.
Cheyney's all-America George Melton was the only visitor who was competitive against the UDC twosome. Chaney said afterward that he hoped forward Leonard Goggins would provide scoring power, but Goggins was unsuccessful, so he went to reserve Greg Pace.
"Sometimes," Chaney said, "that can foul up a team's rhythm."
Evidently it did, because early in the second half the Firebirds went flying by the slower Cheyney players, extending the lead to 13 points on a pair of free throws by Kenny Payne with 12:41 remaining. The teams traded baskets until UDC took a timeout, leading by 12 points with eight minutes remaining.
When the teams came back, UDC was in a slowdown, which has consistently proved dangerous for the fast-breaking Firebirds. It proved so again.
Cheyney adapted to the slower pace, pressuring Payne and Britt into turnovers. With four minutes left, the pressure started paying off. From 68-58 Cheyney closed the difference to seven points, then scored three unanswered baskets in the final minute and a half.
But it was too late, and the crowd chanted "UDC, UDC" as the final buzzer sounded. The scoreboard read 72-67, but a revised box score gave Cheyney a last-second basket.
Britt was high scorer for UDC with 21 and Jones had 19. Melton led Cheyney with 25.
In the dressing room, Coach Jones attributed the win to his team's superior quickness. He said his observations of Melton had convinced him the Cheyney all-America had a weakness that could be exploited: "He shoots from his tiptoes and he's slow, so I didn't think he could go over a 7-footer."
Jones said he felt Cheyney had two shooters, Melton and Goggins, and he hoped to force the visitors to go to other players for their shooting by concentrating on those two. As it developed, Goggins' problem in making outside shots made the job much easier.
Jones said UDC intends to go "all the way. We have to. When you've worked this hard with so little (UDC only this year got its own gym), the only reward you want is a national championship."
UDC faces Cal State-Bakersfield Friday night in the semifinal round. Bakersfield defeated North Dakota, 58-55, Friday.
Jones conceded that the slowdown proved nettlesome once again as the Firebirds frittered away a double-figure lead. But he defended the tactic, saying it wasn't really a stall.
"We were so close (to wrapping it up)," he said. "We knew we were quicker, so we were trying to go back door, cut and break for the basket. But my guys got confused and started going one on one, and that's when we got in trouble. We lost control."
Chaney said the tactic suited him. "I think they gave us a chance by holding the ball late in the game," he said. "It would have been better for them to go at us. I think they started getting coached, instead of playing."
Even Britt agreed. "Coach told us to try to eat up time. Earl (Jones) was in a little foul trouble, and we didn't want him to pick up his fifth. But we'd rather shoot and fast break. This team is not a slowdown team."
Jones did foul out, but there were only 35 seconds left, and the UDC fans were already chanting.