|Ray Gaitling and Bowie State will face Livingstone for the CIAA Championship on Saturday.|
Like all conferences, the CIAA has its perennial powers. The teams that you can count on to make a run at the conference tournament at least every few years. With all due respect, Bowie State and Livingstone are not those programs.
Between the two schools, they have just one conference championship. Livingstone joined the conference in 1931 and has never cut down the nets in victory.
But none of that matters tonight. These two teams have earned their way to the championship game fair and square.
Bowie has easily been the surprise of the tournament so far. They started the week as the fourth-seed out of the what was believed to be the weaker Northern Division. Despite being a talent team, they struggled to find consistency throughout the season, starting just 2-5 in their own division and finishing under .500 (12-13). But as they enter tonight’s contest on a six-game winning streak, all that seems like ancient history.
BSU easily disposed of sixth-seeded Chowan in Wednesday’s opening game, which wasn’t shocking. Even Thursday’s upset of Lincoln, the Northern Division’s top seed, wasn’t too surprising given that their two losses to LU were by a total of three-points.
But Friday night’s 83-66 win over Winston-Salem State in the semifinals let everyone know these kids were for real. They top a top-ten nationally ranked team and pushed them around under the basket as if they were playing with their kid brothers. They dominated the defending conference tournament champions inside, allowing them just six baskets in the paint and forcing them to take 30 three-point attempts. This was after being down double-digits early in the first half.
Bowie coach Darrell Brooks said that adversity is nothing new for his ball club.
“The one thing that this team did all year, they believed in themselves,” he said. “We tell them all the time, strength doesn’t come from success, it comes from struggle. We struggled a lot this year and those guys are just gelling at the right time.”
The only team hotter than Bowie State right now is Livingstone. The Blue Bears have been proving doubters wrong all season. After starting out 9-1, they went 2-4 in their first six CIAA games. Many observers felt the Blue Bears record was padded by easy wins and that they were not quite-ready for prime time.
Then February started. The Blue Bears went a perfect 6-0 in the month, beating nationally-ranked WSSU twice in that span to take the Northern Division crown. They easily disposed of St. Augustine’s 95-70 on Thursday and controlled their semifinal against Elizabeth City State from start to finish as well. Junior reserve Jody Hill has played well in his first CIAA tournament, scoring 31 points in two games. All-CIAA guard Mark Thomas has scored 38 points and dished out 12 assists in the two games.
Tonight, the feeling around Time Warner Cable is that Livingstone is the favorite. And that just may be the way Bowie State wants it. Being the underdog has worked well for them so far. If it’s close, I’m riding with Bowie.