NORFOLK — By halftime of their recent games, the most vexing issue for Hampton University's women was pepperoni or sausage on the post-game pizzas.
On Friday, in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament semifinals, they faced an opponent that was neither intimidated nor incapable.
Top-seeded Hampton (27-5) is one step away from its fourth consecutive MEAC tournament title and will face Howard in the championship game 1 p.m. Saturday. The Bison defeated North Carolina A&T 55-42 in Friday's other semifinal.
"Definitely a tough, tough opponent," HU coach David Six. "Really a struggle for a long duration of the game. I thought that we were able to hit some shots in the middle of the second half and open it up, and I thought from there we were able to take control of the game."
Hampton had won its previous four games by an average of 30 points and its last 13 by an average of 25.6 points. The Lady Pirates, who swept through the conference regular season unbeaten, had just two games decided by single digits since late January.
One of those was a 68-59 win at Coppin State on Feb. 4. In fact, both of HU's victories against Coppin were by single digits.
"I thought that we fought and played hard today, as we did the last couple games prior to today," Coppin State coach Derek Brown said. "That's a very good team that we played. I thought we played them even for quite a while. And then the floodgates opened. I don't think it's anything that we did. It's just that they started putting the ball in the basket. I think they really honed in."
Nicole Hamilton scored 16 of her game-high 26 points in the second half, and MEAC Player of the Year Keiara Avant added 20 points and 12 rebounds.
The Lady Pirates shot 51 percent from the field (29-for-57) and limited Coppin to 29.1-percent shooting. The Eagles managed just six field goals in the second half as HU tightened its defense behind ringleader Alyssa Bennett.
The MEAC Defensive Player of the Year limited Coppin leading scorer Leola Spotwood to two field goals and five points, which tied for her second-lowest output of the season.
"A WNBA prospect," Brown called Bennett.
Still, Hampton led just 48-42 with 11:47 remaining when it began an eight-minute push that ballooned the margin to 70-48. Avant and Hamilton began the run with consecutive jump shots that put HU ahead 52-42.
Olivia Allen (13 points) scored at the end of a fast break. Energetic Ariel Phelps (7 points, 10 rebounds) converted a stickback. Then Allen hit consecutive 3-pointers for a 62-45 lead, and the Pirates took off in the final six minutes.
"It wasn't that we got tight," Brown said. "I actually thought that once it got down to single digits, that they would tighten up a little bit, because they hadn't been this close to anybody. But they didn't, to their credit. They put the ball in the basket, they rebounded the basketball the way they should have."
Hampton's five starters scored all 78 points, and the Lady Pirates won a game that was more closely contested than the final score.
"I won't say we haven't been challenged," Six said. "We have been challenged. The biggest thing is challenging yourself, playing to a standard. We don't want to disrespect any Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team. They're all good and they all presented their challenges in individual ways.
"I just thought that we had a little bit of jitters in the first half and we had to make an adjustment defensively and I thought we did that."
The Lady Pirates on Saturday attempt to become the first MEAC team to win four consecutive tournament titles and accompanying NCAA berths since Howard (1987-90).
"It's a great feeling being one game away," Avant said, "but we haven't reached our goal yet. We still have to take care of business tomorrow."