FAIRFIELD, Conn. - Two streaks were on the line Sunday afternoon at the William H. Pitt Center.
St. Francis - the most decorated Northeast Conference women's basketball program - won 29-straight NEC Tournament games, while Sacred Heart rode a 20-game overall win streak.
Tradition met perfection.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
St. Francis’ Shawna Scott hugs Allison Daly after Sunday’s loss to Sacred Heart in the NEC championship game.
The Pioneers backed up the third-ever 18-0 regular season conference record with an NEC Tournament championship and pushed their winning streak to 21, as Sacred Heart held off the Red Flash, 74-66.
''I've got to give it - Sacred Heart's an excellent team,'' St. Francis coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl said. ''Obviously they've proved it all year - going undefeated in the regular season and through the playoffs. Extremely smart, they stick to their game plan.''
St. Francis could never recover from a sluggish start. The Red Flash were 0-for-7 and committed four turnovers in the first 5:40.
Britney Hodges finally netted St. Francis' first field goal with 13:36 remaining in the first half.
But by that point, the Pioneers (25-7) were still up 13-6.
''I thought we started the game off a little tentative - didn't get the shots early on that we wanted,'' Robinson Fruchtl said. ''Once we settled down, we created some offense off of our defense. That really got us back in the game before the end of the first half.''
Sacred Heart built as much as a 13-point lead, but the resilient Flash made a run to close the half.
St. Francis cut the lead to four at the break, got within three to open the second half, but could never quite get the equalizer or the momentum in front of Sacred Heart's record 1,529 attendance for a women's game.
''I watched game film after game film. They've done that all year,'' Robinson Fruchtl said of the Pioneers' ability to retain the lead.. ''Those kids are very well-schooled. [Sacred Heart coach] Ed [Swanson] does a great job with them. His shooters shoot the basketball, his penetraters penetrate and pull up, and his rebounders rebound. They know their role, and I think that's a big key for them.''
Senior post Kaitlin Sowinski netted 20 points Sunday - on top of the 57 she scored in the first two rounds combined - to claim MVP and All-Tournament honors for the Pioneers. She also grabbed 15 boards in the championship game.
''Sowinski, I've been saying all year, that she's the best low-post player in the conference,'' Robinson Fruchtl said. ''She had a great three-game series. She's difficult to stop.''
NEC Player of the Year Alisa Apo was perfect from the line down the stretch en route to a game-high 20 points for Sacred Heart, who, like the Red Flash, started the season 0-5.
''The team started off 0-5 this year,'' Swanson said. ''Really struggled to find its chemistry. Really struggled on a lot of different areas. The kids showed resiliency, their perseverance, their toughness, and that all came into play [Sunday] I think.
''I don't think we played great. I don't think St. Francis played great. I think both teams played real hard. The effort was there. I think energy was there. We just made more plays down the stretch and we were able to cut down the nets.''
Samantha Leach and Brittany Lilley each led the Red Flash (15-17) with 15 points apiece. Allison Daly scored 13, while Hodges added nine as St. Francis was 23-for-70 (33 percent) from the field.
''We shot 32 percent. You're not going to win many games in a championship situation shooting 32 percent,'' Robinson Fruchtl said. ''We just missed a lot of open shots. Some nights they fall, some nights they don't.
''Our kids battled, but it just wasn't good enough [Sunday]. We just have to learn from this and get better.''
While Sacred Heart waits to find out who it will face in the NCAA Tournament, St. Francis begins its offseason - a bittersweet feeling for the program that was tied for the eighth-best turnaround in Division I women's hoops.
''I feel bad for the seniors. I remember my last game. It stinks. When you go out on a loss, it really does. I'm proud of these kids,'' Robinson Fruchtl said.
''The offseason is where we got better last year, so I'm confident our returners will do the same for next year.''
Game notes: Daly and Lilley were named to the All-Tournament team after their solid performances in St. Francis' first postseason appearance since 2005. ''The supporting cast always has to get the credit. We just have an all-around great team,'' Daly said. ''It's a great feeling to be acknowledged. It would have been great to get the win, but I think at the end of the day, it's a team sport and a team event and these two awards go to the rest of the team, too.'' The Pioneers' Callan Taylor and Monmouth's LaKia Barber were also All-Tourney selections.
ST. FRANCIS (66): Killian 1-3 2-2 4, Leach 3-14 8-8 15, Hodges 4-16 1-2 9, Lilley 6-17 3-4 15, Daly 5-12 2-2 13, Johnson 1-2 0-0 2, Scott 2-3 0-0 4, Robinson 1-3 2-2 4, Caruthers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-70 18-20 66.
SACRED HEART (74): Taylor 4-7 1-4 9, Sowinski 7-15 6-9 20, Ryan 2-7 2-3 6, Apo 5-12 10-10 21, Cosgrove 2-9 1-3 7, Iovino 0-0 0-0 0, Cain 2-4 2-2 7, Campbell 0-0 0-0 0, Gibson 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 24-57 22-31 74.
Halftime-Sacred Heart 33-29. 3-point goals-St. Francis 2-18 (Leach 1-3, Daly 1-5, Johnson 0-1, Lilley 0-3, Hodges 0-6), Sacred Heart 4-12 (Cosgrove 2-6, Apo 1-2, Cain 1-2, Taylor 0-1, Ryan 0-1). Rebounds-St. Francis 40 (Daly 10), Sacred Heart 45 (Sowinski 15). Assists-St. Francis 6 (Hodges 3), Sacred Heart 14 (Ryan 3, Apo 3). Fouled out-none. Total fouls-St. Francis 23, Sacred Heart 17. Technical fouls-none. A-1,529.