CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Fayetteville State has its own version of "Shaq", and she led them to a CIAA Tournament women's semifinal win at Time Warner Cable Arena on Friday.
Shuanda Ashford, whose is nicknamed after former NBA great Shaquille O'Neal, poured in 23 points and snatched 10 rebounds in a 71-57 victory over Virginia Union. The Lady Broncos (24-4 overall), the Southern Division champs and top division seed, reached their seventh CIAA finals in school history and the second under Head Coach Eva Patterson-Heath. Her squad won it all in 2010. The Lady Broncos are shooting for their fourth league crown.
The Lady Broncos reached the CIAA championship game, which is Saturday at 5 p.m., on their inside power and transition game. The Lady Panthers (13-14), the No. 2 seed in the Northern Division, could not stop Ashford, a wide-bodied 6-1 All-CIAA center, despite doubling down on her in a zone defense. Despite the defensive focus on her, Ashford still muscled her way to the basket for easy layups. She was 10-of-16 from the floor.
"In the paint, it's always a battle," Ashford said. "My teammates kept finding the will to get me the ball and I was trying to find the will to put the ball in the basket."
Meanwhile, her frontcourt teammate Tierra Coleman took advantage of the attention on Ashford on the weak side of the basket to produce a double-double of 16 points and 12 rebounds. Coleman, the Food Lion MVP of the game, was perfect offensively, making 7-of-7 field-goal attempts and 2-of-2 free-throw attempts. Together, the frontcourt duo combined for 39 points and 22 rebounds. Coleman carried the Lady Broncos when Ashford went out briefly after falling out of bounds under the basket in the second half.
"Shuanda went diving for a basketball and ended up clearing out a row of chairs and kind of got a stinger in her elbow," Patterson-Heath said. "So she was off a little bit, but her sister teammate, Tierra Coleman stepped up and played a really big game. She grabbed some offensive rebounds. She was 100 percent from the floor and 100 percent from the free throw line and that's just a testament of her desire to play [Saturday]. And then once Shuanda recovered, she was just relentless in the paint; again a testament of her desire to play for a championship [Saturday]."
Ashford had 12 points and seven rebounds and Coleman, a 6-1 senior, added ten points and five rebounds in the second half to spark the Lady Broncos, who pulled away after leading 31-30 at halftime. The two teamed together on a bucket when the Lady Panthers sliced a 14-point deficit to six in the closing minutes. Coleman dumped a pass to Ashford for a three-point play to give the Lady Broncos a 64-55 lead with 2:29 left in the game. Led by the senior duo, the Lady Broncos held a 48-34 advantage in inside points.
The Lady Broncos iced the game when Kristen Hanzer, the CIAA player of the year, converted a three-point play on a full-court drive after the Lady Panthers scored. She made the score 67-57 with two minutes remaining.
Akysia Resper added 15 points, four assists, five rebounds and four steals, and Hanzer had nine points and eight rebounds for the Lady Broncos. When the Lady Broncos weren't scoring inside, they were beating the Lady Panthers down court for easy layups on turnovers or made buckets.
The contest was similar to the regular season meeting between both teams, a 76-51 victory for the Lady Broncos in January. The Lady Broncos took control in the second half after leading by seven at halftime.
On Friday, the Lady Panthers had some success inside with Danielle Ferguson producing 11 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. They held a 22-17 edge in offensive rebounds, but struggled from the perimeter. All-CIAA guard Ashle Freeman led the Lady Panthers with 19 points and Melyce Brown added 11 points for the Lady Panthers, but they combined to shoot 13-of-42 against the Lady Broncos' zone. Brown did add nine rebounds, six assists and two steals while Freeman had three steals.
"We knew we were going to have a challenge in the paint," Virginia Union Head Coach Barvenia Wooten-Cherry said. "We did our best to guard them, but they were tough. We tried to double down, we tried to front them. I believe my team gave us the best effort that they possibly could have. Our shooting was a little off tonight [34 percent]. I believe that if we had hit a few more buckets, then we would have had a closer game. But as far as the overall effort, I believe my team fought well. "
The contest was tight from the outset as neither team led by much. The Lady Broncos opened with a 5-0 lead but the score was tied for the third time at 12-12 at the 9:46 mark. The first half stayed close through halftime with the Lady Broncos holding a slim 31-30 lead at the break. The score was tied five times and the lead changed eight times in the first half.
The first half was about as even as it gets. Both teams scored inside and off turnovers. The Lady Broncos got inside scoring from Ashford (11 points) and perimeter points from Resper (10 points, 5 points) in the opening 20 minutes. The Lady Panthers had their own inside-outside punch with Ferguson (10 points, 5 rebounds) and Melyce Brown (7 points, 6 rebounds).
Fayetteville State will advance to the championship round where it has an all-time record of 3-3. The Lady Broncos will face Shaw University at 5:00 pm on Saturday. FSU split with the Lady Bears during the regular season.