FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- In their final year in the USA South Athletic Conference, the Christopher Newport University Captains (21-5) made it a clean 15 titles in program history when they defeated Greensboro College for the second straight year, 81-74. CNU got a career-high 21 points from rookie Connor Laframboiseand tournament MVP Nik Biberaj added his third straight double-double as the Captains captured their second title in three years under head coach John Krikorian.
Christopher Newport earns the USA South's automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament and will now wait to hear who and where they will play in next week's first round on Monday afternoon's Selection Show. The Show and bracket will be released following the final decisiosn from the National Committee on Monday at 12:30 pm.
The Captains built a huge lead on the Pride (18-11), who had been the league's hottest team coming into the postseason. Greensboro won 10 straight games entering Saturday's championship game, including a win over CNU on their home floor. Unphased, CNU opened the game on a 13-2 run, primarily behind freshman Evan Thorpe. The rookie, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, scored 11 of the first 13 points with a pair of three-pointers and an old-fashioned three-point play all in the first three and a half minutes of action.
The lead would build to as many as 18 in the first half, as another freshman began to step up. After Thorpe's burst to start the game gave CNU a solid cushion, it was his classmate Connor Laframboise who build the lead later in the frame. The 6-6 freshman guard knocked down three trey's and was 5-of-6 from the floor in the first half to head into the locker room with 14 points. He also made an impact defensively, affecting a pair of Greensboro attempts from inside the paint.
At the break, the CNU defense had held the Pride to just 8-of-29 shooting (27.6%), including a paltry 1-for-9 from long range (11.1%). Meanwhile, led by the stellar play of the two freshmen, CNU was hitting 43.8% of their shots, with five made three-pointers. CNU led by 13 with a 39-26 score at halftime, and was up by as many as 18 in the first half.
Early in the second stanza, the game appeared to be a runaway for Christopher Newport. The Captains build the lead to 20, 59-39, with 11:16 remaining. Laframboise stayed hote, hitting for five more points in the run, while Biberaj and Tra Benefield also helped pad the cushion.
However, over the final ten minutes of the game, the Greensboro Pride showed why they were such a tough team to beat in the latter third of the season. With a full-court press employed, GC started to force turnovers and make shots. Devonta Davis started the run, scoring 10 straight points for the Pride and pulling his squad back within 14, 63-49. Another CNU turnover and three, this time by Donald Anderson, made the lead just 11.
A pair of Evan Thorpe free-throws slowed the bleeding, but Greensboro kept pushing, finally closing to within two (69-67) with 3:37 remaining on a Luqman Tijani three-pointer to all but erase the CNU lead. Overall, the run was finished at 28-10 when junior scoring leader Tra Benefield went to the line and stopped the bleeding. He hit four straight free-throws on CNU's next two possessions to build the lead back to six, 73-67. In the final minute, CNU was forced to answer several shots made by the Pride to hold on, but behind Mike Cherry, did so, as the sophomore knocked down four free throws and a fast-break layup to help ice the win.
CNU shot 54.2% in the second half, knocking down 13-of-24 shots, but Greensboro's torrid comeback was fueled by a 50% shooting effort of their own, hitting 17-of-34 shots including eight three-pointers.
Five different CNU players finished in double figures, led by the career night from Connor Laframboise. The rookie made 8-of-10 shots, with four three's, finishing with 21 points and six rebounds. Biberaj's third straight double double (16 pts, 12 reb) earned him Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. He was joined by Thorpe and Laframboise on the squad, with N.C. Wesleyan's Brandon Givens and Greensboro's Luqman Tijani and Damian Dixon.
Greensboro also had five players finish in double figures, led by Tijani's 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Davis added 15 off the bench, while Dixon hit a trio of three-pointers and had 11 points.
CNU captured its 15th USA South Athletic Conference title, formerly known as the Dixie Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In 25 all-time appearances in the championship game, CNU won 15 times, including three of the last four years.
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