BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — They waited 16 years for a shot at an SIAC title.
After Saturday’s heartbreaker, the Albany State Lady Rams are going to have to wait even longer.
Albany State led by five points in the final minute of regulation in the SIAC championship game against Benedict College, but the Lady Tigers stormed back to force overtime and then knocked off the No. 1 seed Lady Rams, 67-64, in OT to win the conference title and earn an automatic bid to the Division II national tournament.
“We had been able to close the deal in almost every game this year,” ASU coach Robert Skinner said. “There are very few games when we haven’t been able to close it out. I’m very surprised.”
Now Albany State, which is fifth in the Division II regional rankings after the program’s best regular season in more than a decade, can only hope to receive an at-large bid to the national tournament to extend its season.
For much of the game up until the final minute, it looked as if the Lady Rams would be hoisting their first conference championship trophy since 1998. ASU jumped ahead 17-8 in the first half and took a 28-27 lead into halftime. The Lady Rams opened the second half on a 6-2 run and led the rest of the way until the final seconds of regulation.
Down by five with 35 seconds left, Benedict rallied to take a one-point lead with 15 seconds left on a pair of Ashley Thompson field goals. ASU’s Kourtney Alexander went to the line one second later and hit 1 of 2 to tie the score at 55-55. Benedict’s Amanda Toliver turned the ball over with 1.5 seconds left, and Alexander hit back iron on a 75-footer at the buzzer that would have won the game for the Lady Rams.
In overtime, the lead bounced back and forth before Benedict seized it for good with two Maya Nelson free throws with 1:38 left. On its final possession of the game, ASU was able to attempt three potential game-tying 3-pointers, but none of them fell.
ASU freshman star Tip Holston led the Lady Rams with 22 points, and Alexander added 14 on a night when ASU gave away what would have been its biggest victory in years.
In the final 35 seconds of regulation, Albany State missed three free throws, committed two key turnovers and allowed Benedict, last year’s SIAC runner-up, to escape with the title. It was an uncharacteristic collapse from a team that had won nine of 10 games entering the contest and had swept Benedict in the regular season.
ASU’s streak of seasons without an SIAC title will now stretch to at least 17 — but this year’s tournament exit is going to sting a little more after it took 16 years for the Lady Rams to even return to the championship game after their 1998 title.
“You can hear a pin drop,” Skinner said on Saturday’s bus ride home when asked what the team’s mood was like.