Samford headed to first NCAA tournament after winning SoCon title

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Emily London's piece of the net is tied around her right wrist. Paige Anderson jokes her strand will be kept safe in jar. Savannah Hill expects hers will go into a scrapbook.

The Samford Bulldogs have reason to remember these souvenirs forever from a victory putting them into their first NCAA tournament.

Anderson hit a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left that helped Samford make the NCAA tournament for the first time, beating Appalachian State 57-54 to win the Southern Conference tournament on Monday.

"I can't even describe it," Samford senior Emily London said. "I'm sure all the other teams have worked hard too. Speaking from my perspective, every single one of us has practiced so hard and worked in the offseason and just to be able for it to come down to this and we get a win to go to the NCAA ... That's just a great honor and an unbelievable feeling."

Mike Morris has been Samford's coach the last nine of the program's 14 seasons, and it's been a tough road moving through the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley Conference before settling into the Southern Conference.

"I wish we could've skipped some steps in the past nine years, but it's been a gradual climb," Morris said. "It all starts with players and the right ones. They may not be the biggest or the fastest, but they are the right ones with their ability and their character."

Samford (25-7) will cap its best season with its second national postseason berth in school history. They went to the WNIT a year ago where they won a game.

But the NCAA tournament is what Samford wanted, and the Bulldogs tapped into their experience having lost this game a year ago to pull out an improbable win in a game where they hit only four shots in the final 10 minutes -- none bigger than Anderson's 3.

Appalachian State (25-6) lost for the first time in seven championship game appearances, and the Mountaineers missed out on their first NCAA berth since 1999. Coach Darcie Vincent called it one of the ugliest games possible for two teams with a ton of offensive potential.

"They made the shots when they needed to. We didn't. Very unfortunate," Vincent said.

Anderson finished with 14 points. Savannah Hill had 13 and Emily London 12.

Ashlen Dewart led Appalachian State with 13 points. Courtney Freeman had 12, and Kelsey Sharkey 10.

The Bulldogs made four baskets in the final 10 minutes, including Anderson's 3-pointer.

But the nation's fourth-best 3-point shooting team made 11 of 29 from beyond the arc.

London, the nation's top free throw shooter, missed a free throw with 29.2 seconds left with Samford trailing 54-52. After a scramble, Anderson hit her fourth 3 for the Bulldogs' first lead since 15-14. London credited the Bulldogs with not wanting to be swept by Appalachian State for a third game this season.

"I think just the last minute or so of the game, it all came down to heart, and it came down to who wanted it more. I think all five of us went at it, went hard and thank goodness for Paige and Shelby [Campbell] at the end knocking down shots and free throws," London said.

The Mountaineers had their chances.

Courtney Freeman missed a jumper, then Dewart had a chance to put the Mountaineers ahead with 4.1 seconds left but missed both free throws. Campbell came up with the rebound for Samford, then hit two free throws with 3 seconds left to help seal the victory when Sam Ramirez's shot was off target and too late before the buzzer.

Dewart, the sophomore, tried to take the blame saying she choked. Both Vincent and teammate Anna Freeman defended her, saying the Mountaineers had their chances to win. Freeman noted she didn't know the clock better in getting the ball to Ramirez for the final shot.

"It's just basically frustration," Anna Freeman said. "You can't blame that game on anybody but ourselves. We should've been prepared to come out here and execute. We did on some plays, and some plays we took off."

Appalachian State led by nine late in the first half and 30-24 at halftime. The Mountaineers also dominated on the boards, outrebounding Samford 44-26 with a 42-10 scoring advantage in the paint.

But the Bulldogs opened up the second half with Dawson hitting a quick 3 followed by another 3 from Anderson. When London scored on a three-point play with 16:22 left, that pulled Samford within 37-35 and neither team led by more than a bucket the rest of the way.

Sharkey rebounded a miss by Dewart and put it back with 2:36 left for the Mountaineers' last lead at 54-52 and last point.