Ni'ya Styles scored all of her 14 points in the second half and Arieal Johnson's basket with less than a minute remaining put seventh-seeded University of Mount Olive ahead to stay as the Trojans defeated No. 3 seed Belmont Abbey College 55-52 in the semifinal round of the 2015 Conference Carolinas Women's Basketball Tournament Thursday at Gaffney, S.C. The win, Mount Olive's second in a row against a higher seeded team, advances the Trojans to the Championship Game for the third consecutive year.
Mount Olive takes on top-seeded and nationally third-ranked Limestone College Friday at 7 p.m. in the title game. Limestone, which is hosting the conference tournament "final four," slipped past No. 4 seed Erskine 68-63 in Thursday's first semifinal. Friday's winner earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional.
Styles connected on each of her first four three-point attempts and scored Mount Olive's first 12 points of the second half as the Trojans broke away from a halftime tie to take a 42-37 lead with 11:54 left in the contest. Mount Olive (14-16) built the lead to six points, but Belmont Abbey came back to take a 47-46 lead on Morgan Midkiff's three-pointer with 3:59 remaining.
Rachel Fehl put Mount Olive back on top 49-47 with 3:15 left on her third three-pointer of the game. Belmont Abbey tied the game on a short jumper by Midkiff with 2:58 left. Johnson hit 1-of-2 free throws to give the Trojans the lead again and after the Crusaders missed the front end of a one-and-one, Ty Wallace hit a 15-foot jumper off of Fehl's no-look pass to give Mount Olive a 52-49 advantage with 2:09 remaining.
After the two teams traded defensive stops, Belmont Abbey (20-10) tied the game again on another three-pointer with 1:16 remaining. On Mount Olive's ensuing possession, Anamaria Zjacic found Johnson underneath for a layup off the right glass to give the Trojans a 54-52 lead with 59 seconds left.
Mount Olive stopped Belmont Abbey on its next possession, but the Trojans missed the front end of two one-and-one's. The Crusaders got the offensive rebound on a missed three-point attempt and a scramble ensued for the rebound on another missed three-point attempt. Wallace gained possession of the ball on the floor just above the top of the key and drew a foul with 2.6 seconds left. Wallace hit 1-of-2 free throws and Belmont Abbey's desperation three-point attempt from beyond halfcourt was well short.
Both teams got off to a slow start in the first half. After Johnson scored for Mount Olive on the game's first possession, the Trojans went scoreless for five minutes, but trailed only 4-2. Johnson's layup with 12:52 left gave Mount Olive its first lead at 8-7.
Mount Olive stretched the lead to 20-15 on Martha Mastin's layup with 8:35 remaining, but Conference Carolinas Player of the Year Mackenzie Owen came back with a pair of free throws for Belmont Abbey. Fehl answered with a pair of three-pointers to give the Trojans their biggest lead of the game at 26-17 with 6:16 left before halftime.
Mount Olive held a 30-23 lead on Kiara Jones' basket with 2:26 remaining, but the Trojans would not score again the remainder of the half. Owen hit a pair of baskets and Caitlyn Ranson's three-pointer with 40 seconds left completed a 7-0 run as the Crusaders tied the Trojans 30-30 at the half.
Styles became the second freshman in as many tournament games to lead Mount Olive in scoring. Fehl scored a team-high 21 points in the Trojans' first-round win over No. 2 seed King.
Johnson finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, while Wallace added 10 points and nine rebounds. Zjacic shared game-high honors with five assists and pulled down seven rebounds, all on the offensive end.
Owen scored 16 of her game-high 23 points in the first half for Belmont Abbey, while Midkiff scored 13 of her 17 points in the second half.
Mount Olive and Limestone face each other in the tournament for the third consecutive year, including the second straight year in the Championship Game. The Trojans defeated the Saints in the semifinal round of the 2013 tournament on their way to the conference championship. Limestone defeated Mount Olive in the title game last year.
Mount Olive has now won six of its last seven conference tournament games against higher-seeded teams. The Trojans are the first-ever No. 7 seed to reach the Conference Carolinas Women's Basketball Tournament Championship Game and the lowest seeded team to reach the title game since No. 6 seed Lees-McRae in the 1999 tournament.