March 9, 2009
Championship Central - Charlotte, N.C.
No. 3 Charlotte 59, No. 4 Richmond 54
Championship Game Box Score | Photos
Post-Game Press Conference - Richmond Coach Michael Shafer | Post-Game Press Conference - Charlotte Coach Karen Aston | Post-Game Press Conference - Charlotte Players
AP - Katie Meier helped Charlotte to one NCAA tournament and a WNIT bid before bolting for Miami's coaching job. Amanda Butler led the 49ers to two more WNIT appearances before becoming Florida's coach.
So when Karen Aston took the 49ers to a fifth WNIT in as many seasons in her debut last year, she knew the 49ers were long overdue for a breakthrough.
On Monday, it happened. Behind 22 points from Shannon McCallum, Charlotte captured its first conference title in school history by rallying to beat Richmond 59-54 in the Atlantic 10 championship game.
"We needed to make this step," Aston said. "From when Katie was here and when Amanda took over and now, this program needs to make this step and I'm really proud it's happened."
Never in their stints in the Sun Belt, Metro or Conference USA did the 49ers reach a league tournament final, and they were bounced out in their first game in their first three years in the A10.
Now the third-seeded 49ers (23-8) are headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003 thanks to a relentless second-half press and their friendly home-court advantage.
"It's difficult coming in knowing that you've lost every year" said Charlotte senior point guard Traci Ray, who had nine points and was voted tournament MVP. "But I think once we won that first game it just got us over that hump and let us breath a little bit."
Brittani Shells scored 20 points for Richmond (23-9), but committed nine turnovers and missed three shots in the final minute, including a tying 3-point attempt with 33 seconds left.
Erin Floyd and Ray then combined to hit six straight free throws, and the tournament hosts celebrated an NCAA bid that was wide open after top-seed Xavier's quarterfinal loss to Dayton.
Richmond reached the final by rallying from 19 down in the second half to knock off the Flyers behind Shells' 26 points, while Charlotte crushed second-seed Temple in the other semifinal.
Fourth-seeded Richmond, just 14-17 last season, became a league contender this season despite dressing only nine players after injuries to five, including junior forward Katie Holzer.
But trouble handling the ball prevented the Spiders from returning to the NCAAs for the first time since 2005.
"My nine kids that dress give me everything they've got every single day," said coach Michael Shafer, fighting back tears.
Charlotte trailed by eight early in the second half while its top scorer was in a funk. Junior guard Aysha Jones missed her first five shots, before her layup and Aston's decision to go to a full-court press ignited the 49ers.
With Richmond having trouble getting the ball in the frontcourt, the 49ers went on a 16-5 run. McCallum's steal and layup gave Charlotte a 49-44 lead with 5:41 left.
"I thought me at the top of the press, that it would bother them, me being a bigger guard," the 5-foot-10 McCallum said. "I thought it was a good thing to go to the 12 press, to get steals and get our momentum."
The 49ers then held on behind McCallum, the A10's sixth player of the year. She hit 8 of 15 shots and added five steals. She made up for Jones' 3-for-12 shooting performance and Charlotte's 26 turnovers.
Shells, who has regained her shooting touch following a painful finger injury on her shooting hand, scored 10 points on a variety of mid-range jumpers as Richmond outscored mistake-prone Charlotte 21-8 to close the first half for a 31-24 lead.
Johanna McKnight added 14 points as Richmond's four-game winning streak was snapped. It left the Spiders clearly on the NCAA tournament bubble and Shafer making a plea for his team and the league.
"We're the seventh-ranked conference in America. Last year we were the 10th and we got three (teams)," Shafer said. "I feel like we've done a lot. We have seven 20-game winners. ... Obviously Charlotte's going. I believe Xavier's going. I feel like Temple should go. And I don't want to toot my own horn, but I definitely feel that Richmond should go."
Charlotte won't have to sweat selection day. The 49ers are in the NCAA field after five long years in the WNIT.
"I knew when I came here that this program was on the verge of doing some things," Aston said. "I'm really proud of this group."
2009 A-10 All-Championship Team
Danielle Burgin, Charlotte
Shannon McCallum, Charlotte
Traci Ray, Charlotte
Justine Raterman, Dayton
Brittani Shells, Richmond