Falcons earn automatic NCAA bid with win vs. Eagles

CLEVELAND -- As confetti rained down, Lauren Prochaska soaked in the moment.

This was why she came to Bowling Green, where success is measured in conference championships and trips to the NCAA tournament. And as the senior star and her teammates prepared to climb the ladder and cut down the nets for the second straight year, Prochaska could finally relax.

"This," she said, "never gets old."

Prochaska scored 20 points, Tracy Pontius triggered a crucial second-half spurt with a behind-the-back pass and Bowling Green overcame a miserable shooting performance to win another Mid-American Conference title, 51-46 over Eastern Michigan on Saturday.

The second-seeded Falcons (28-4) won their second straight MAC title, the school's 11th, and the league's automatic NCAA bid.

It wasn't easy.

Bowling Green defended its crown despite shooting just 24 percent and being outrebounded 52-41 by the fifth-seeded Eagles.

"That was a really pretty game," Falcons coach Curt Miller said sarcastically. "Our defense bailed us out. But that's what it's about this time of the year -- surviving."

With six seniors leading the way, the Falcons showed why they are the MAC's elite women's program. Their shots weren't falling, so they buckled down on the defensive end and held the speedy Eagles (22-12) to 25 percent shooting.

"Bowling Green has set the standard in the conference," Eastern coach AnnMarie Gilbert said. "They're a great team and they have a great program. They've been here before and we haven't. That's not an excuse, but they have a lot of experience."

Tavelyn James scored 19 to lead Eastern Michigan, which was making its second title game appearance. It won the championship in 2004.

The Eagles were the lowest seed to ever make the final and a combination of nerves and tired legs -- they had to play four games in eight days -- may have affected their shooting. BG's interior defense also had something to do with it as the Falcons blocked eight shots and altered many more.

Bowling Green was in control leading 49-40 with 2:08 left after a layup by Pontius. But the Eagles kept fighting, scored six straight and forced a tie-up with 32 seconds left. Eastern Michigan got possession but De'Ja Wills missed a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left.

Prochaska, a senior and two-time player of the year, then sealed it with two free throws in the final nine seconds. When the horn sounded, she was swarmed by her teammates at halfcourt and soon the Falcons were cutting down the nets, something they've done many times before.

It was BG's fifth title since 2005.

"This is what's we've been working for all year," Prochaska said. "We weren't the No. 1 seed, but we always believed we could win it again."

Prochaska, who scored 37 points in BG's win over EMU last month, was only 3-of-13 from the floor. But she made 13-of-15 free throws and her defense shut down the Eagles' Cassie Schrock, who scored nine points and missed 10 shots.

Unable to run away from the Eagles, the Falcons finally got a fast-break bucket with 8:47 left -- and it changed the game.

Pontius caught an outlet pass from Chrissy Steffen and took off up court with Prochaska. With only one EMU defender back, Pontius passed up a layup opportunity and delivered a gorgeous behind-the-back bounce pass to Prochaska, who dropped it in to snap a 35-all tie.

The play ignited the Falcons and their rabid fans, who spent much of the afternoon screaming at the officials.

Miller has seen Pontius throw the pass many times before, but the way things were going for his team, he was worried she wouldn't pull it off.

"I expected it to go right out of bounds," he cracked.

Bowling Green got a stop at the other end and Pontius fed Steffen for a big 3-pointer, giving the Falcons a 40-35 lead. Two free throws by Maggie Hennegan capped a 7-0 run -- a rare offensive stretch in a game where both teams scrapped for everything.

The Falcons will enter the NCAAs with 11 straight wins and will be a tough out for whomever they play. Three of BG's four losses were by one point.

After the game, Miller was drenched with water by his players, who celebrated a championship they never imagined belonging to anyone else.

"I was very hard on them this season," Miller said. "I know they didn't like me very much at times, but I was tough on them just so they could feel the way they're feeling right now."

For the Falcons, that feeling never gets old.