Laura Lewis and Quanneisha Perry wrapped their arms around each others' shoulders and showed no sign of wanting to let go.
Hampton University's two seniors combined for 25 points and 17 rebounds in an 88-49 victory against Florida A&M on Monday night that clinched HU's first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title in seven seasons.
"We are so excited," Lewis repeated, clinging to her fellow forward in a post-game interview.
"Every year, we were picked to finish fifth or fourth," said Perry, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds on Monday and now has 1,139 points and 897 rebounds in her four-year HU career. "(This year), hard work paid off."
Lewis, Perry and the rest of the Lady Pirates (20-6, 13-1 MEAC), the reigning conference tournament champions, were announced as regular-season champions in the final minutes of a game that ceased to be a contest with four minutes left in the first half, when HU took a 20-point lead. After the game, Lewis, a 6-foot-2 forward knocked woozy by a solid screen she didn't see early in the first half, lifted 5-4 point guard Jericka Jenkins off her feet in a mid-court bear hug.
"It's good, because we get to hear it at home, but we still know we've got two regular-season games left," said Lewis, who had 12 points, seven rebounds, four steals, two blocks and two assists.
Hampton, which earned the top seed and a first-round bye when the MEAC tournament begins March 7 in Winston-Salem, N.C., closes the regular season at Delaware State on Saturday and at Howard on March 3.
The Lady Pirates were playing their first game after a scheduled contest against Bethune-Cookman, responsible for HU's only MEAC loss this season, was forfeited by the Wildcats after the entire Bethune-Cookman team was suspended by the school following an altercation in a game against Maryland Eastern Shore. The forfeit counts as a MEAC victory but is not recognized by the NCAA, Lady Pirates coach David Six said.
Hampton, which came into Monday's game giving up just 53.3 points per game, 12th best in the nation, led 48-22 at halftime after shooting 60 percent (18-of-30) in the first half. Jenkins, who came into the game second in the nation in both assists per game (seven) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.06) had eight of her 11 assists in the first 20 minutes. She also finished with 17 points.
Junior guard Choicetta McMillian led HU, which shot 50.7 percent (35-of-69) for the game, with 18 points.
The Lady Pirates opened up a 26-12 lead midway through the first half with a 15-2 run. Lewis keyed the spurt with a layup and an assist to Melanie Warner, who was fouled on a turnaround jumper and made the free throw for a three-point play.
"It's like a boxing match," Six said. "It's a feeling-out process. Defensively, we kind of figure out what's going, and take it from there."
Warner, a junior forward out of North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, had seven points and five rebounds against the school where her mother, Eileen, is an assistant English professor.
"We aren't even aware (of the score)," Warner said. "We just know every time we come down the court, Coach Six is saying, 'We need another defensive stop,' so that's what we try to do."
The Lady Pirates forced 23 turnovers and held Florida A&M to 30.6 percent shooting in the second half.
HU's lead stretched to 30 on McMillian's free throw four minutes into the second half. With the lead at 82-43 with 4:16 to play, Six took Lewis and Perry out of the game to an ovation from the crowd.
MEN Florida A&M 58, Hampton 55
Amin Stevens' 3-pointer with 1:20 to play helped Florida A&M hold off Hampton and send the Pirates to their third straight loss in Monday night's final regular-season home game.
The skid comes at the worst possible time for the Pirates (19-8, 9-5 MEAC), who fell out of a tie for first place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with Bethune-Cookman in Saturday's 78-76 overtime loss to the Wildcats.
"Just a bad effort on senior night," HU coach Edward Joyner said. "We have to come out and we have to play better, and I'll take responsibility for that."Stevens also made a layup with one second left on the shot clock and 3:13 to play, while Chris Watson barely beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer with 5:50 remaining to return the lead to the Rattlers (12-16, 7-7 MEAC) at 43-41.
Darrion Pellum's 3 made it a 57-55 game with 10 seconds left, and Brandon Hosley made just one of two free throws with nine seconds left to leave the lead at three points, but Pellum's deep 3 with three seconds left hit off the front of the rim.
Kwame Morgan hit a 3 with 27 seconds left to cut FAMU's lead to 53-50, but Rasheem Jenkins made two free throws at the other end. Brandon Tunnell's jumper cut the lead to three again, but again the Rattlers made two free throws.
FAMU went 5-of-6 from the free-throw line in the final 26 seconds.
Pellum had 17 points for the Pirates, who shot 35 percent for the game.