When Nova Southeastern coach LeAnn Freeland took over the program two years ago, she and her staff knew something special could develop at a place she believed contained the total package.
Top-notch facilities in South Florida paired with quality recruits could create an atmosphere where a team was considered a national contender every season.
Freeland’s vision continued to take shape as the top-seeded Sharks cruised past third-seeded Delta State 78-56 on Monday night in the NCAA Division II South Region championship at the Don Taft University Center.
Nova (23-8) advances to the Elite Eight, the furthest round it has reached in just its second NCAA Tournament appearance. The Sharks will face the West Region winner on March 27 at Rattlers Arena in San Antonio.
Since losing to Rollins College in the second round of the Sunshine State Conference tournament on March 9, the Sharks have won three in a row by an average of 22 points.
“Our coaching staff had quite the vision, and we were bold enough to share it with every recruit that walked through our door,” said Freeland, who still had confetti in her hair from the postgame celebration. “For it to come to fruition means a lot. I’m starting to become emotional. It’s a really special moment we get to share together.”
Delta State (21-10), a six-time national champion, opened the game with a 10-4 run over a 4:18 span, knocking down its first four shots. After falling behind 12-4 with 14:40 remaining in the first half, Nova went on a 13-5 run over the next five minutes to take its first lead on sophomore guard Danielle Robinson’s layup.
The Statesmen committed seven turnovers and made just 37.5 percent of their shots as the Sharks captured a 34-26 halftime advantage.
“It’s the game of basketball,” said senior guard Tailor Jones, who scored 16 points and was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player. “It’s an imperfect game, so there’s going to be ups and downs. We just kept pushing and being aggressive and stayed together and persevered and came out on top.”
A four-point deficit was the closest Delta State got in the second half thanks to sophomore guard Rhandi Ball’s layup just 2:46 into the half. Following sophomore forward Seneca Walton’s jumper at 13:10, the Statesmen produced just three buckets over the next 11 minutes.
Robinson’s three-pointer handed Nova its largest lead, 72-47, with 2:54 left in the game. Ball, who scored eight of Delta State’s first 10 points, scored a game-high 28 on 14-of-21 shooting.
“Words can’t even express how I feel right now,” said Robinson, who scored a team-high 20 points. “I’m just so proud of us with the hard work we put in to get here. We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied. This is just another step we’re trying to take for the program.”