LORETTO - Samantha Leach displayed as good of an example of sports leadership as there is to her St. Francis teammates with 34 seconds left in Saturday's NEC semifinals.
The Red Flash had crumbled, giving away an 18-point lead, and faced a tear-jerker of an ending to their season. Robert Morris was leading by two when SFU called timeout and huddled on the sideline.
Leach looked her teammates in the eyes and delivered the following message:
"If you have any doubt in your mind, sub yourself out right now."
The Flash players had plenty of reasons to doubt themselves at that point, but they never did. Not this confident collection of young ladies.
They broke the huddle, then broke the hearts of the Colonials to move within one game of the NCAA Tournament.
"You've just got to have confidence that you're going to do it," said Leach, a junior guard who scored 14 points and now has 999 for her career.
No one on the court Saturday has more confidence in her abilities than Britney Hodges, who drilled the game-winning 3-pointer with 10 seconds left for an 80-79 SFU win at DeGol Arena.
As calm and collected as the Flash played in crunch time Saturday, there was a time not long ago when the season was teetering on falling apart because the players weren't all on the same page.
That's when another great leadership moment occurred, and like in yesterday's game, it served as foreshadowing to eventual success.
St. Francis had lost three straight - including a 31-point drubbing at Robert Morris - when it visited Central Connecticut State on Feb. 13. That morning, upperclassmen Hodges, Leach, Janie Killian and Allison Daly gathered for a meeting.
"We decided that we'd been playing scared," Daly said.
The team was scared of making mistakes, scared of committing turnovers, scared of missing shots. Then and there, they made a pact to change all of that.
They vowed to play with no fear.
The four upperclassmen assembled the rest of the players and discussed how things would be going forward.
"We're confident. We can do this," Daly said of the message. "Play with poise and play with intensity. ... Every time we step on the court it's no fear, expect the unexpected, do your role."
The message clearly went over well as the Flash beat Central Connecticut State easily that night, 64-45, to start what has become a seven-game winning streak.
As it turns out, what occurred Saturday with the late-game showing of heart and character was not just 34 isolated seconds, but rather three weeks of pent-up confidence spilling over at the most opportune time.
"Our kids just hung tough," SFU coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl said. "We play with no fear; that's kind of been our theme."
The Robert Morris ladies showed at least an equal amount of character in fighting back the way they did. Angela Pace, in particular, showed why she was named NEC Player of the Year by carrying her team with 23 of her 30 points coming in the second half.
"We wanted a championship," said Pace, whose squad went 17-1 during the NEC regular season but will have to settle for the NIT instead of the Big Dance.
Let's be clear about something, too. One of the reasons Robert Morris was ousted is because the women's NEC Tournament is severely flawed.
It is not fair in any way for a team that goes 17-1 during the regular season to have to play on another team's home court for the tournament. It's pretty dumb, really.
A league like the NEC should try to do everything it can to get its best team in the NCAAs for a better chance to pull off an upset that would gain the conference notoriety.
It's debatable - probably even doubtful - that St. Francis is better than Robert Morris, but the Flash clearly benefited from playing the first two rounds on their home court.
Colonials coach Sal Buscaglia danced around the subject with the grace and subtlety of a jackhammer operator Saturday. He repeatedly tried to give St. Francis credit for winning and didn't want to take anything away from the Flash, but he kept mixing those thoughts with what sounded like complaints about how being at home was certainly an advantage for SFU.
"This is not sour grapes or anything," Buscaglia said. "St. Francis won. ... They hit the shot, we didn't."
The truth of the matter is Buscaglia must be very upset, and he has every right to be. For all of his squad's accomplishments this season, he noted, "I tell my team after all that, 'We've got to play our two games on the road.'"
The league coaches agreed to the tournament format - SFU athletic director Bob Krimmel voted against it, by the way - and Buscaglia congratulated St. Francis officials for running a fine tournament.
There's simply not enough interest in NEC women's basketball to have all the games played at a neutral site. The only fair way to go about it is to have the higher seeds host games, which is how the men's NEC Tournament operates.
In this case, the stars aligned for St. Francis to host the tournament and to get the Colonials in the semifinals instead of the finals, which would have been played at Robert Morris.
The Flash nearly let the opportunity slip away, but their confidence in themselves and one another down the stretch kept their NCAA dreams alive.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.