CHARLOTTE, N.C. – BR-75 Virginia State thwarted BR-215 Livingstone’s chance for a third straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship with an 89-79 win inside Time Warner Cable Arena Saturday night.
Virginia State (22-5) not only clinched their first CIAA title since 1988, but as CIAA champions, the Trojans also became the first D2 men’s basketball team to clinch an automatic qualifier bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been so long since VSU has won the championship and we wanted to change that,” Virginia State head coach Lonnie Blow, Jr. said. “We talked about changing that, because  years is too long to be without a championship.”
Blow also became the first CIAA coach to capture conference titles with two different programs. He coached St. Augustine’s to the 2010 CIAA crown, when the Falcons defeated Elizabeth City State 63-59 and advanced to the Atlantic Regional Semifinals that season.
Livingstone (15-16) head coach James Stinson summed up his post-game reaction by quoting Psalm 27:13: “I remain confident that I’m going to see the goodness of my God in the land of the living.” “These young men have toiled and they worked hard,” Stinson added. “I’m very proud of them. We came up against a sharp and very good team. Coach Blow did a tremendous job with this program and he’s experienced in doing so.”
Blow and his coaching staff made clear to their players what was expected from this season.
“We set a goal earlier in the year to be conference champions, and we started working back in August – weightlifting, getting up early in the morning, conditioning, things like that – with this day in mind,” Blow said. “And to see it all unfold like it has and think back on all of our journeys, our up and downs and the adversity that we went through a little bit during the season, for the most part we were consistent.
For the players, preventing Livingstone from becoming the first team to win three straight CIAA championships since Virginia Union (2004-2006) was also on their minds.
“It was tough [for us] because they were going for a three-peat,” said Virginia State guard Kevin Williams, who scored 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds while earning Tournament MVP honors. “I knew that if we went out there and played hard we were going to win the game.”
While Williams and senior guard Javon Moore, who led all scorers with 30 points, led the stat sheet for the Trojans, Blow made it very clear it wasn’t just their efforts which brought the gold back to Petersburg.
“We’re a team,” Blow emphatically said. “A lot of people try to ask questions about this guy or that guy, whatever the case may be. We’re one unit and that’s the way we play. We always talk about play together, stay together.”
Virginia State opened the game with five straight points before Livingstone battled back to tie the game at 7-7 early in the contest. The two teams battled through five ties and five lead changes though a first half which saw neither team lead by more than six points.
Williams closing the frame with a tip in to cut the Blue Bears lead to 36-35 at the half.
“Kevin’s tip in at halftime kind of gave us a little momentum,” Blow said. “That was a big play for us.”
Little did those watching the game in Charlotte know how big that play would be for the Trojans.
Williams picked up in the second half where he left off in the first, draining a three as part of a decisive 14-0 run. During that run, Williams drew the hoop and harm when Daryl Traynham picked up his third foul, then, after arguing with the officials, was hit with a technical foul – his fourth personal.
“It was a bad decision,” Traynham said. “I kept arguing with the ref and he gave me a technical foul. It wasn’t that big of a deal. When I came back [in the game] I was trying to get back in the groove.”
Although Traynham would finish with a team-high 29 points, it wasn’t enough as the Trojans would not relinquish the lead the rest of the way.
“They came out and they were hungry,” said Livingstone’s Ty Newman, who scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “They wanted it bad and they looked like the best team in the conference in the second half and that’s how they came out.”
By the time the Trojans received the C.E. “Big House” Gaines Trophy for winning the CIAA title, the focus slowly started to shift to the NCAA tournament, a topic that Blow and his squad weren’t thinking of in the weeks leading to Charlotte.
“I didn’t really think about getting in the NCAA tournament as much as I thought about winning the CIAA championship, Blow said. “I didn’t put a lot of thought into the regional rankings and things like that. We’re just trying to stay focused on the stuff right in front of us.”
Now that the CIAA Tournament is over, the players can focus on bringing the CIAA their first win in the NCAA Tournament since Shaw defeated Wheeling Jesuit 92-68 in the 2012 Atlantic Regional Semifinals.
“We plan on bringing this program to a higher level from this year to next year to the years after that,” Moore said. “This year is the stepping stone to bigger success. We’re ready to take on the challenge.”
As for Livingstone, Stinson didn’t blame the fatigue of the Blue Bears playing their fourth games in as many nights.
“I think we spend so much time trying to downplay other people’s opportunities and Coach Blow does a tremendous job,” Stinson said. “His kids came out and his kids executed and they took advantage of opportunities that he had as a team. We play a lot of people anyway and we know what the rigors are of the CIAA and we put ourselves in that position.”