RADFORD — Radford waited 23 years to get back to the top of the Big South Conference in women’s basketball, and old nemesis Campbell tried its hardest to make the Highlanders wait a bit longer.
Radford’s 19-point lead dwindled away before some of the Highlanders’ usual suspects took matters back into their hands and prevailed 57-45 at the Dedmon Center. Then they gave sixth-year coach and Roanoke native Mike McGuire an ice-water bath on the court during a joyous postgame celebration.
“It has taken us a few years to get over the hump, we’ve been close, but just to see the emotions of everybody today was just incredible,” said McGuire, who was sporting a cut on his forehead from a wayward water cooler dump.
That blow wasn’t the only shot the Highlanders (26-6) had to withstand on Sunday afternoon.
The Campbell comeback, from down 41-22 at 4:55 of the third quarter when RU’s Savannah Felgemacher scored inside, to 45-40 after Luana Serranho’s layin with 7:02 left, was a gritty 18-4 burst during which the Camels finally got some shots to drop. The Highlanders aided and abetted, missing some point-blank shots and committing half of their six turnovers during that span.
“I thought there was a little fatigue, but we relaxed on defense, too,” said McGuire, who was a freshman baseball player at Radford in 1996, when RU last hoisted this trophy. “You can’t coast against anyone in a championship game. We just had to keep our poise and rebound the ball.”
With Campbell within five points for the first time since early in the second quarter, Radford’s Jen Falconer took just her second shot of the day, nailing one of Radford’s two 3-point field goals, at 6:25.
Campbell’s Ashlyn Hampton’s jumper made it 48-42 at 5:35, but Campbell would get no closer.
Destinee Walker got loose for a wide-open layup, a rarity in this war of defense-minded teams, and that started RU on a 9-0 run. Tournament MVP Lydia Rivers, on her way to 14 points and 14 rebounds, got a huge three-point play at 1:53. The Highlanders did the rest at the free-throw line and with their defense, which limited Campbell (21-12) to just two made shots in its last 14 attempts.
“I wasn’t nervous that entire time because we’ve been trying to develop a championship mentality,” said Walker, who joined Rivers on the all-tournament team. “Champions don’t get nervous.”
The Highlanders flexed their muscles in a dominating second quarter, blitzing the Camels 21-2. Campbell shot just 1 of 15 during that period and had six turnovers.
Radford’s size inside — 6-4 Sydney Nunley and 6-2 Rivers — turned around an early rebound disadvantage and allowed the Highlanders to get out in transition, creating scoring opportunities and a growing advantage at the free-throw line (15 of 21 made to just 4 of 5 for the Camels).
“We had to relax,” said Walker, who had eight points, seven rebounds and two steals. “Only a couple of us played in the championship two years ago when we played Asheville. So I think we had to settle down. We just talked to each other and went on .”
Nunley had six points and five rebounds in the second quarter, drew a couple of fouls and picked up her second and third blocked shots as RU overcame an early 12-7 deficit. Nine of Radford’s 11 first-half baskets were in the paint or in transition. Nunley finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
“Being here for those teams that made those NCAA Tournament runs [in the 90s], that’s why this is special for me,” said McGuire, who saw his team lose by a point to UNC Asheville in the 2017 championship game. “This program has a rich tradition. Give this team credit. They’ve had a lot of heartbreak the last few years, but have kept their discipline to get back.”
Radford won nine of the first 10 Big South titles, and met Campbell in the final six times during that stretch. They are now 6-1 against the Camels in the championship game.
These Highlanders are on a record roll, 18 consecutive wins, but had some championship game jitters and struggled early to solve the sticky Camel defense . Radford was just 4 of 16 from the field as Campbell built a 12-9 advantage by the end of the first period. The Camels grabbed 13 of the game’s first 21 rebounds.
Radford would win the battle of the boards 41-40, and hold Campbell to 18-of-61 (29.5 percent) shooting for the game. McGuire credited his team’s attitude.
“Destinee often comes into our huddle and says something like ‘We’re not going to lose this game,’ and that gets everyone going,” he said. “She didn’t do that today, but she just had that attitude, and that’s what it takes. That attitude and the experience this team had to get to this point.”
Radford will learn its NCAA opponent and game site Monday when selections and seeds are announced on ESPN at 7 p.m.