UDC opened defense of its Division II national championship in uncustomary fashion last night. The No. 1-ranked Firebirds shrugged off Randoph-Macon's delay tactics in the second half and walked off with a 34-17 victory in an NCAA South Atlantic Region first-round playoff game before a capacity crowd of 3,000 at Van Ness Physical Activities Center.
St. Augustine's broke open a close game with a 12-4 scoring spurt midway in the second half and held on to eliminate Hampton institute, 78-73, in the other first-round game.
UDC (26-2) will play St. Augustine's (21-5) for the region championship tonight at 8. Randolph-Macon (20-9) faces Hampton Institute (22-7) in a consolation game at 6.
The Firebirds (26-2), after averaging 94.4 points per game and scoring 100 or more points 13 times this season, never could establish their running game. Randolph-Macon (20-9) didn't have the height to contend with UDC's 7-foot center Earl Jones or the quickness of 6-7 Michael Britt and his teammates, so it opted to use a delay game.
The strategy was sound, but Randolph-Macon got few uncontested shots against the aggressive Firebird man-to-man defense. At one point during the first half, the Yellow Jackets failed to score on nine straight possessions. They had only two field goals on their final 17 possessions but, because the Firebirds made only five of 21 shots, trailed the heavily favored hosts, 16-12, at the half.
"We expected some sort of delay game, so we practiced our half-court defense all week," said UDC point guard Kenny Payne. "We knew they would take their time and pass the ball around until they got a good shot. This is the first time we had to play a team that passed the ball 20 times before looking for a shot. We had to be patient."
The Firebirds, who won their 21st straight game and 30th at home, were patient. Randolph-Macon didn't change its strategy in the second half, but again had problems with the Firebirds' defense. Twice, the Yellow Jackets couldn't get the ball in bounds and UDC answered with baskets by Greg Carson and Britt. Following another turnover (20 for the game), John Jones made a layup and UDC was ahead, 24-12, with just over 15 minutes left.
Randolph-Macon then did a strange thing. UDC sat back in a 2-1-2 and the visitors stood near midcourt holding the ball.
"At that point, UDC had started to gain some momentum and I didn't want to get blown out," Randolph-Macon Coach Hal Nunnally said. "We were trying to do something to stop their flow.
"We were prepared to do it as long as possible. When you come into the No. 1-ranked team's gymnasium, you don't think about winning, you think about staying close. We just couldn't get close enough."
During the three-minute lull while Randolph-Macon held the ball, UDC Coach Wil Jones called Payne over and carried on a nonchalant conversation ("He told me to just stay in the zone and if we got the ball, hold it on them").
After Jesse Hellyer made a layup to make it 24-14 with 9:16 left, many fans cheered loudly as the Firebirds went to a spread offense. They worked 4:27 off the clock with 43 passes until Britt was fouled.
"We only had one team foul and had to foul in a hurry to get them in one-and-one," Nunnally said.
But the Firebirds made six of seven throws down the stretch and Earl Jones (eight points), still slightly hampered by a sore back suffered in UDC's final home game two weeks ago, threw a good pass to Johnny Jones for a layup and a 15-point lead with 1:11 left.
"I thought we handled the ball well enough to stall ourselves," said UDC Coach Jones. "We missed some good shots early or we would had a bigger lead at the half. We played very good defense and were very patient against them. The kids were so hungry to play, they were ready to play anyone in any style."
Britt was held to seven points and failed to get a dunk for the first time in more than two dozen games, but did make a 25-footer at the buzzer.