It was really too much for Barbara Stevens to deal with at once.
“It doesn’t take much to make me emotional,” admitted Stevens, in her 28th season of what has been an extraordinary run as the women’s basketball coach at Bentley University.
Friday night, in Erie, Pa., she had many reasons to be moved to tears.
Bentley, with an ending that stretched the bounds of credulity, captured its first NCAA Division 2 national championship with a stunning rally to put down West Texas A&M, 73-65.
It was the first NCAA title for the Falcons, who own more tournament wins than any other Division 2 program in the country.
“We thought we’d be pretty good this year,” said Stevens. “How good remained to be seen.”
How good? Bentley finished 35-0. But it sure looked like it would be 34-1 late in the title game when they trailed by nine, 58-49, with 5:38 remaining.
The Falcons responded with a furious comeback, but it was the tail end that was the game-changer.
According to senior forward Jacqui Brugliera, classmate Lauren Battista asked Stevens, “Can we do our ‘40’ [fullcourt pressure] defense?”
With three players, including Brugliera, saddled with four fouls, Stevens did not want to go to the press too soon.
“But the ‘40’ was our last chance to win the game,” said Brugliera, who was a force in the paint with 17 points before fouling out, capping a dominant three-game stretch in which she was named Most Valuable Player of the Elite 8.
When Bentley was down by 9, “I had a fleeting thought that it had been a great season,” said Stevens, who thought it would end with a loss in the biggest game of their lives.
“But we were able to get our press going, and all of a sudden we were back in the game. Now I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to win this!’ ”
Stevens credits the Falcons’ second unit for giving the starting five all it could handle during practices.
“We’d put our first unit behind by eight or 10 points with just a few minutes left and made them come back,” said Stevens. It paid off big-time in the title game.
“I was playing at the top of the press (in the West Texas A&M game), so I saw it all happening,” said Brugliera, who starred at Wachusett Regional and lives in Shrewsbury. “I don’t think they expected it, especially with us being in foul trouble.”
“The press worked to perfection,” said Battista, who departs as the program’s all-time leading scorer (2,112 points). In one unforgettable 11-second sequence, Battista drained a go-ahead 3-pointer, stole the ensuing inbound pass and converted the bucket down low for a 65-61 lead. Bentley never trailed again.
The night before, Stevens had addressed her team after watching film.
“We were going over our game plan, and at the end I got very emotional,” she said.
She could barely speak. There was just this one game left for her seven seniors. “I was thinking this is an end of an era,” said Stevens. What could she say to this group that had gone 123-11 overall?
Stevens really didn’t have to say anything.
Courtney Finn, a southpaw shooting grad student from Winthrop, said “We got it, Coach.”
They got what their beloved coach was trying to say, then went out and got the national championship. Finn, like Battista, a first-team All-America selection, stepped up with a team-leading 21 points and was 12 for 12 at the free throw line.
“We’d reached our goal and our dream,” said Stevens, who has won 917 games in a coaching career that has covered 37 seasons and included stops at Clark and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It’s a great story,” said Bentley athletic director Bob DeFelice, who has been at Bentley for 46 years and has been the school’s only baseball coach.
Obviously, he knows Stevens well.
He was worried about what he’d say to Stevens the next time they met.
“I don’t think I’ll say anything that makes sense,” he said. “It’s such an emotional thing. The last three minutes of that game captured Barbara’s whole story. It’s the exclamation point’’ of her career.
Her mother, Betty, and late father, George, were behind the Bentley bench for many of them. Betty, now 89, suffered a stroke in November.
“She’s been in and out of the hospital and rehab the whole season,” said Stevens. But Betty couldn’t make the eight-hour bus trip to Erie. She watched the game on TV at her daughter Sue’s home in Brookfield.
In her post-game televised interview, Stevens sent out a teary “Hi Mom!”
“On the bus back to our hotel I called her and asked ‘Did you hear my shout-out?’ ” recalled Stevens. Betty’s first comment on her daughter’s winning a national championship: “Finally.”
The Falcons had several hundred supporters in the crowd of 2,151, including players Stevens had coached at Clark and Bentley.
“When I saw them, I felt my career had come full cycle,” said Stevens. On campus, students packed the Dana Center to watch the game on TV.
The championship game was on at The Greatest Bar across from TD Garden, and Falcon fans whooped it up and proudly displayed a large school banner. The Bentley-West Texas A&M game received more attention than the Division 1 men’s tournament games that were on at the same time.
Battista, who was the state’s Player of the Year as a high school senior in powering Oliver Ames to the Division 2 title, said, “It’s going to be hard to get back to normal life. This is unreal. We know how good Bentley teams have been in the past. Coach Stevens is a special coach. She’s so invested in Bentley basketball. I’ve never seen anyone who knows so much about the game. She never takes a day off.”
Gloria Larson, Bentley’s seven-year president who was in attendance for the title game, wrote in an e-mail, “I was hard-pressed to think of anything I wanted more for coach Stevens and her players than a national title.
“These young women represent everything I love about Bentley. Gifted athletes, campus leaders on and off the court, strong academic records. [Stevens] loves Bentley, and boy, do we love her.”
Friday’s win should make it easier for Stevens and her assistants to recruit. “Now you can say (to the recruits), ‘You can play for the national championship at Bentley. It’s been proven.’ ”
At 58, Stevens has thought about her future, and how long she may keep coaching.
“The way I feel right now, I’d like to do it as long as I can, as long as I’m making a difference.”
Which might keep her at Bentley forever.
With its 35-0 final mark, Bentley University joins the University of Connecticut (1995, 2002, 2009) as the only women’s basketball program in New England to finish a season unbeaten.Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.