Run and shoot or stall ball, the defending NCAA Division II champion and No. 1-ranked University of the District of Columbia is becoming masters of both.
Getting eight free throws from Earl and Johnny Jones in the final three minutes tonight, UDC fended off patient Sacred Heart's stalling tactics, 45-38, in a quarterfinal game before a disgruntled crowd of 2,300 at Southern Connecticut State's Moore Fieldhouse.
The victory puts UDC (28-2) in the final four at Springfield, Mass., Friday and Saturday. The Firebirds (with Division I top-ranked Houston) own the nation's longest winning streak, 23; they will meet Morningside, which beat Jacksonville State, 91-90, tonight, in one semifinal Friday night. Wright State will play Bakersfield State in Friday's other semifinal. Bakersfield State beat SE Missouri, 75-70, in a western game last night.
For the second week in a row, UDC had to alter its free-wheeling style of sophisticated playground basketball to deal with stalling tactics. And, for the second week in a row, the Firebirds adjusted beautifully. Randolph-Macon tried to hold the ball, but the Firebirds triumphed, 34-17, in an Atlantic Region game last week. Sacred Heart, a more talented, more poised team, wasn't quick or talented enough to do it, either.
"I thought they might hold it, but I didn't expect them to play that slow," said UDC Coach Wil Jones. "The game started that way and there was nothing we could do about it. We had about nine scoring opportunities on fast-break situations but messed them up. Had we made those chances, we would have put the game away in the first half."
Sacred Heart Coach Dave Bike, not anxious to witness another defeat by the Firebirds like that of Jan. 5 (104-87), ignored the pleas of the home crowd of "play ball" and stayed with his semidelay tactics all evening.
"I felt we had to play that way if we expected to win," he said. "We knew we had to be patient and not get in a running game with them. They wanted to run and shoot so we slowed things down. But their defense just played so under control, we could never completely do what we wanted."
The Pioneers' strategy failed because, except for a 7-6 lead, they were always behind. They couldn't control Earl Jones inside and steadily fell behind in the first half.
Jones had six points in the first half and Michael Britt and Neal Robertson each had four as UDC clawed its way to a 20-17 lead at intermission.
"They couldn't stop me inside, they didn't have that much size," said Earl Jones, who finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. "I was moving well and I wanted the ball. But they figured if they held the ball, I couldn't get it. Neither one of us was scoring but we were ahead, so it didn't make any difference."
Holding a three- to seven-point edge throughout, UDC played fine defense in the second half. Switching from a straight man defense to a sagging 2-3 zone, the Firebirds completely shut down any back door notions or drives down the lane. For three and four minutes at a time, Sacred Heart (27-5) didn't look at the basket.
Two free throws by Earl Jones gave his team a 35-27 lead with 3:20 left in the game. Sacred Heart had to abandon its game plan and play ball with the Birds.
Rhonie Wright (17 points) scored on a follow shot, made two free throws, a driving layup and a left-handed finger roll, bringing the Pioneers close, 39-35, with 39 seconds to play.
Meanwhile, UDC's Britt (10 points, eight rebounds) and Kenny Payne missed front ends of one-and-one bonus foul situations. But Earl Jones had two free throws and Robertson caught an Earl Jones pass for a breakaway to keep UDC in front.
Earl Jones made two more free throws seconds before Keith Bennett scored for Sacred Heart to keep it a four-point game with 28 seconds to play.
The Pioneers got a break when they forced a jump ball on UDC's next possession. Sacred Heart got the ball as a result of the alterating possessions, but couldn't score a field goal. Bennett rebounded after the third Pioneer miss, was fouled and made one of two free throws to cut UDC's lead to 41-38, 15 seconds to play.
Sacred Heart fouled Johnny Jones and the 6-foot-8 forward dropped in two from the line and UDC began celebrating with 11 seconds to play.
"They didn't pick on me because I was the only one who hadn't been to the line," said Johnny Jones, who played only 23 minutes because of foul trouble. "They had to foul someone, anyone. All of us have been practicing free throws this week. I've been hitting mine all year. After I made that first one, the second one was easy."
Bennett put up a brick from 26 feet and Earl Jones threw a long pass down court to Britt who dunked at the buzzer.
Actually, the game had ended some time before.
Division III: Bill Bessoir had 27 points to lead Scranton to the NCAA Division III championship with a 64-63 victory over Wittenberg at Grand Rapids, Mich.
Tim Casety led Wittenberg with 16 points.
Scranton completed its year at 29-3 and Wittenberg was 26-6.
In the consolation game, Gerald Holmes had 22 points to lead Roanake of Virginia to an 83-77 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.