NORFOLK — What David Six calls the most improved team he's ever coached allowed Hampton University to make history.
As they've done for the past month, the Lady Pirates smothered an opponent defensively, this time on the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's biggest stage.
Hampton overcame its own offensive spottiness and pulled away for a 59-38 win against third-seeded Howard in the MEAC title game Saturday at Scope.
"I thought that defensively we continue to be sharp," Six said. "I thought that we played tight and turned the ball over quite a bit. But we've hung our hats on defense all year, and I thought that defensively we were able to get control of the game."
The top-seeded Lady Pirates (28-5) won their 19th consecutive game and joined Howard (1987-90) as the only MEAC programs to win four consecutive tournament titles. Hampton also joined Coppin State (2006) as the only team to go unbeaten in the conference and win the tournament championship.
"I'm truly blessed to win four straight MEAC championships," said senior and tournament MVP Keiara Avant, who played her final league game. "That's never been done at Hampton University, so I'm truly blessed to be able to come to Hampton and have the relationship with Coach Six. He's a great coach, and he keeps us going every day with defense."
Hampton learns its NCAA tournament destination 7 p.m. Monday when the selection committee announces the 64-team field.
"We don't control what the NCAA does, obviously," Six said. "I think if we're given the seed that we're warranted, we're very dangerous. We've obviously got to get a decent seed."
Defense makes Hampton a dangerous opponent. As of Thursday, the Lady Pirates were No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (47.3) and third in field goal percentage defense (.320) and 3-point percentage defense (.244).
Saturday's performance didn't hurt those numbers. Hampton limited Howard to 12-for-56 shooting (.214) and 3-for-19 from 3-point range (.158).
"For Howard, it was a tough day offensively," Bison coach Niki Reid Geckeler said. "When you shoot the ball like this, you kind of put yourself in a hole when you're playing one of the best defensive teams in the country."
Defensive ringleader Alyssa Bennett (14 points) limited Howard's Saadia Doyle, the MEAC's career leading scorer, to nine points on 2-for-9 shooting. Nicole Hamilton used her height advantage against Howard point guard Cheyenne Curley-Payne, holding her to seven points on 2-for-10 shooting.
"Hampton is a very defensive-oriented team," Doyle said, "and whenever we play them it's always aggressive, aggressive from start to finish. We have this tendency of backing up, backing up, backing up and retreating, instead of taking it head on and pushing through it.
"Once they come with the pressure and you continue to retreat, you're putting yourself in a bad situation. You're going to make it hard offensively."
Hampton's offensive sloppiness was the only reason the game was as close as it was. The Lady Pirates' 19 turnovers countered their 20 field goals, and they missed eight free throws in the first half.
Much as she did in Hampton's 67-45 win in late January, Olivia Allen provided the spark that separated the two teams with a personal 9-0 run. She hit a 3-pointer from the left wing and banked in another trey from almost the same spot on the next possession. She was fouled on a 3-point attempt on the next trip and made all three free throws, extending the lead to 32-13 at the 1:57 mark.
Howard made one final push and nearly climbed back into contention midway through the second half. The Bison were within 41-29 on Curley-Payne's driving shot with 10:40 remaining.
The Lady Pirates responded with another 9-0 run. Avant began it by rebounding her own miss, which led to two Hamilton free throws later in the possession. Bennett hit a 3-pointer from the right corner on the next trip. Avant scored on consecutive possessions to give HU a 50-29 lead with 8:23 remaining.
Six finally was able to exhale and enjoy the final minutes, and he received a drenching from the players after beginning his college coaching career with a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament trip.
"Obviously, it's sweet, but I will tell you what's even sweeter: It's four kids from this area who started today," Six said, referring to Avant, Hamilton, Bennett and Ariel Phelps. "Five kids on the team, but four who started today are from the same area code, the 757.
"And they went 28-5, beat some big schools out of the conference. And got an opportunity to show how this area is so rich in talent. It's really big for that, and they got a chance to win it here at home."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times