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RedHawks rip rival Bobcats to grab MAC title, automatic berth

CLEVELAND (AP) -- When it was her turn, Maria Fantanarosa clutched the scissors tightly and walked toward the ladder for a climb she'll never forget.

First as a player, then as coach at Miami of Ohio, she had always dreamt of one day cutting down the nets as a Mid-American Conference tournament champion.

On Saturday, her moment finally arrived.

"I ... took ... it ... one ... step ... at ... a ... time," Fantanarosa said slowly, still wearing the nylon necklace an hour after the game. "I wanted to enjoy this journey."

Miami of Ohio, which won just 12 games last season and eight the year before, earned its first NCAA tournament bid as Amanda Jackson and Jenna Schone scored 19 points apiece in a 67-56 win over Ohio in the MAC championship.

The RedHawks made the most of their first appearance in the MAC title game since 1995. Using an 11-0 run in the second half, they pulled away from the Bobcats, who had knocked off three-time defending champion Bowling Green in the semifinals.

The victory was especially satisfying for Jackson, a senior who had redshirted after sustaining a season-ending knee injury two years ago following an on-court collision with teammate Laura Markwood. Jackson added five rebounds, four assists and was selected tournament MVP.

"We were hungrier," said Jackson, an all-around talent described as "sometimes too unselfish" by her coach. "We wanted it more, and that's what gave us an edge."

While she deflected all the praise to her players, the win was just as sweet for Fantanarosa, a two-time All-MAC selection with the RedHawks who took over her alma mater's sputtering program in 1998 and has led it on a steady rise to the top.

After the final horn, she was lifted into the air by her players, who have endured more than their share of injuries and off-court obstacles.

"We had something to prove," Schone said. "We stuck together as a team."

The Bobcats got to the finals for the first time since 1986 by upsetting powerhouse Bowling Green in two overtimes, a victory that may have sapped some strength from the Falcons. Laura Hmiel scored 12 points and senior Lauren Kohn, who failed to score in Ohio's win over BG, added 10 -- but none in the second half.

"Coming down the stretch, we needed to come through and it didn't go our way," Hmeil said. "After we beat BG, we beat the best team in the MAC, but today we were always a second behind on rebounds and layups."

With the score tied 41-all, Miami's Stephanie Ford converted a three-point play to trigger the 11-0 spurt by the second-seeded RedHawks, who have won 12 of 13. After Schone's basket made it 52-41 with 7:29 left, Fantanarosa pumped her fist and turned toward the Redhawks' fans, including the men's team which stuck around after losing to Kent State in Friday's semis, urging the red-and-white faithful to bring her team home.

The Bobcats weren't ready to fold, though, and closed to 59-52 on Jenny Poff's 3-pointer with 1:53 left.

But Ohio couldn't get any closer as Miami took care of the ball and made its free throws in the final minute.

When Jackson grabbed a long rebound with 12 seconds left, she screamed, threw an index finger into the air and skipped toward midcourt as her teammates hugged in celebration knowing they were finally part of the NCAA field.

By then, Fantanarosa was hugging anyone within reach.

As Miami's players danced around in championship T-shirts and caps, Ohio coach Sylvia Crawley sent her underclassmen back onto the floor.

"Not as punishment," said Crawley, a former captain and No CAA champion at North Carolina in her second season at Ohio. "Just to see the hats and T-shirts so that next year it will be them. They gained some valuable experience."

When she was hired at Miami, Fantanarosa was advised to cherish the little moments, but it took the mother of two little girls a long time to understand what that meant. For three years, she didn't even notice a large tree standing outside her office window at Millett Hall.

Now, she knows every limb and leaf.

"I'm going to enjoy this championship," she said, "before I set a goal to win the next one."