Published 12:00 am Friday, March 1, 2013

CHARLOTTE — Save the last dance for James Stinson and the anything-is-possible Livingstone men’s basketball team.
The CIAA’s Coach of the Year has the Blue Bears positioned to win the school’s first conference tournament championship tonight after Friday’s 68-53 semifinal win against Elizabeth City State.
“I feel good with this group, but we still have to play the game,” Stinson deadpanned at Time Warner Cable Arena, where 24th-ranked Livingstone (22-5) won its eighth straight game and earned a berth in tonight’s final against (either Bowie State or Winston-Salem State). “No matter who it is, we have to match up and execute healthy basketball.”
One night after filling the hoop with thunder in a 95-70 quarterfinal win over St. Augustine’s, LC shot 41 percent from the field and converted just two of 11 3-point attempts. But the Blue Bears continue to bring out the worst in opponents — and ECSU (17-11) took its place in the back of the line.
“I’ve been here 18 years and that might have been the worst first half I’ve ever seen,” losing coach Shawn Walker said. “Maybe the stage was too big for us, but it was just not a good night for the Vikings.”
He’s not kidding. Though both teams were arctic cold from the field in the early going, Elizabeth City never warmed up. It misfired on its first eight and 18 of its first 19 shots from the floor, falling behind 13-0 when senior Tyler Johnson stuck a foul-line jumper. The game took more than two hours to complete, but the Vikings were cooked after eight minutes in Livingstone’s oven.
“The biggest thing for us was team defense,” 6-foot-8 Ethan Anderson said after contributing 11 points and 10 rebounds. “Our individual strength is backed by the rest of the team. We always had confidence a teammate would be there to help.”
That strategy worked against ECSU’s 6-4 senior Angelo Sharpless — the CIAA’s second-leading scorer and Player of the Year. A slice-and-dice forward who averaged 20.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, Sharpless was held pointless until he sank a pair of free throws with 11:38 remaining in the first half. He made his first basket with 6:15 to go.
“He’s the best player in this conference,” Anderson said. “There’s not a lot you can do. He always gets his.”
So did Livingstone guards Mark Thomas and Jody Hill. Thomas had 13 points, eight assists and five steals despite a subpar shooting performance. He nonetheless directed LC’s offense like he was conducting the Boston Pops orchestra.
“Our execution got a little better after we calmed down,” he said with a grin. “They were missing shots and we were converting on the transition.”
Hill, a junior who wasn’t invited to the post-game press conference despite being named the game’s MVP, shot 3-for-10 from the floor but had 13 points. He made the night’s most exciting play late in the first half when he stole the ball from ECSU’s Blake Price near midcourt and raced in for a whirley-bird dunk, providing a 32-15 lead.
“Jody’s made a conscious effort to come off the bench and give us a spark,” Stinson said. “He did a tremendous job of getting in the passing lane. He was able to get a hand on it and once he gets out, he has such long arms he can finish around the rim.”
Livingstone maintained a 20-point edge for most of the game’s remainder. Anderson scored all of his points early in the second half. The Blue Bears widest margin came when Eladio Espinosa made a free throw with 13:33 to play.
“This was really just another game for us,” Thomas said nonchalantly. “We still need to win one more.”

NOTES: A victory in tonight’s 8:30 finale would give Livingstone its first championship . It reached the title game in 2011 but fell to Shaw. The Blue Bears outscored Bowie State (15-13) 85-72 on Jan. 3. … Nationally ranked Fayetteville State and Shaw will meet for the women’s crown at 5 p.m. … John Dell of the Winston-Salem Journal was named CIAA Sportswriter of the Year.

ELIZABETH CITY STATE (53) — Sharpless 20, Byrd 10, Rice 9, Price 5, Faulcon 5, Jackson 2, Barber 2.
LIVINGSTONE (68) — Hill 13, Thomas 13, Anderson 11, Ford-Bey 10, Espinosa 9, T.Johnson 6, Turner 3, Bailey 3, Adams, D.Welch, Godlock, Flint, D.Johnson, King, A.Welch.

ECSU 15 38 — 53

Livingstone 32 36 — 68