Albany State women’s basketball coach Robert Skinner talks to his team during Saturday’s SIAC championship game against Benedict. The Lady Rams lost to Benedict in overtime but still earned an at-large bid for this week’s NCAA Division II Tournament. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
ALBANY — Robert Skinner calls it a blessing.
After watching his Lady Rams collapse in the final moments of Saturday’s SIAC championship game, Skinner, Albany State’s longtime women’s basketball coach, was able to breathe a sigh of relief late Sunday night when his team got new life.
The Lady Rams received one of 42 at-large bids for the NCAA Division II Tournament and were awarded the No. 5 seed in the South Region at Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where they will face No. 4 Delta State in Friday’s opening round at 7:30 p.m.
“I was relieved, but I wasn’t very surprised because I felt like we would get this opportunity,” said Skinner, whose Lady Rams finished the regular season No. 5 in the regional rankings and enter the national tournament with a 21-6 overall record. “Being ranked as high as we were all year, I felt in my heart that we would get that blessing. I was just relieved when we got it.”
It’s believed to be the first time in program history that the Lady Rams have earned an at-large bid, and it’s the first time since 1998 that ASU will play in the NCAA Tournament. In ’98 — the last time ASU won its conference tournament — the Lady Rams won their opening round game in the national tourney against Rollins College before falling in the second round.
The last time Delta State and Albany State met in the NCAA Tournament was in 1996 when the Lady Statesmen rolled to a 99-67 victory on their way to one of their 12 Elite Eight appearances since 1986.
Delta State is 15-0 all-time against Albany State and carries one of Division II’s richest traditions into the 64-team tournament, but when the Lady Rams learned their opponent during a Selection Show watch party on Sunday night, few knew of Delta State’s history.
“When my kids found out they were playing Delta State, they all said, ‘Who is Delta State?’ ” Skinner said. “I am glad they have that attitude. In the past my kids have been intimidated by Delta State because of the history of their program. These kids don’t have a clue. I think sometimes when you are clueless then you are better off.”
It won’t get any easier for the Lady Rams if they find a way to knock off Delta State. The Round 2 opponent would likely be No. 1 Nova Southeastern unless the host Lady Sharks are upset in their opener against Benedict, which stunned Albany State in Saturday’s SIAC championship game.
“You try to win your game, but you also pray that Benedict upsets Nova,” Skinner said. “Then you get another shot at Benedict. That’s what you are praying for.”
The tournament’s first three rounds will be played at regional sites with regional championship games being held Monday to narrow the field down to eight teams. The Elite Eight will begin March 25 in Erie, Pa., with the championship game being played March 28.
HURRICANES DANCING, TOO: The Georgia Southwestern men’s basketball team earned its second appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament on Sunday with an at-large bid in the Southeast Region.
The Hurricanes will be the No. 6 seed in Saturday’s opening round in Aiken, S.C., where they will play No. 3 seed and Peach Belt Conference rival Montevallo, which knocked GSW out of the national tournament in the opening round in 2011.
GSW (20-10) and Montevallo (24-5) split during the regular season this year with both teams winning on their home courts.
The Hurricanes, who fell to Peach Belt champion and region No. 1 seed USC Aiken in Saturday’s conference semifinals, are 4-7 in their last 11 games but used a hot start to the 2013-14 season to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. GSW started the year a perfect 10-0 and was 16-4 through January before winning two of eight games in February.