LORETTO - In many ways, it felt like a typical night of basketball Friday night at DeGol Arena.
But in many ways it wasn't.
The St. Francis women have a new coach. The Red Flash have two key players returning from injuries.
There was a lot of uncertainty, but it never really showed.
Sparked by the return of Brittany Lilley and Shene Fleming, and Alli Williams' 15th career double-double, the Red Flash opened the season and Joe Haigh's head coaching career with a 69-61 victory over Howard.
"It was very exciting," said Lilley, who - along with Fleming - missed all of last season with a knee injury. "I was very anxious to get back on the court and play. We really wanted to come out and prove a point. To win this one was definitely huge."
"The things you go through in a year of not being able to play and just watching, the emotions you feel, especially the first game back, it's incredible," Fleming said. "I've never felt better on the floor than I did tonight. It was a great team win. I've missed my teammates."
For Haigh, though, the win means a little more for the team than it does for himself.
Coming off a 24-9 season last year, Howard was picked to finish first this season in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
"It feels great," Haigh said. "It's a great feeling to be able to beat a team like Howard. There's things that I'm learning in a game - it's been quite a while since I've coached a game.
"We played a good game. We had some tough moments. It's great to have the seniors back. It's great to have Shene back, [Lilley] back. I thought it was a pretty gutsy performance against a very good team. We didn't play our best game and we beat a team that should be a contender for an NCAA Tournament bid."
St. Francis (1-0) started well, building a quick 13-5 lead and having several opportunities to blow the game wide-open, but turnovers kept the Bison (0-1) in the contest. The Red Flash finished with 25 giveaways.
"We had a lot of chances," Haigh said. "We came out and got off to a good start, and then we turned the ball over. We'll have to cut those down. It's nine or 10 turnovers too many."
Williams, who played all 40 minutes, scored 20 points and had 12 rebounds.
"I didn't have the best first half," she said. "I was shaky on defense and I had a lot of turnovers, but I got it together at halftime. [Lilley] was yelling at me to take it to the basket and I finally did. They first shot I made boosted my confidence."
"She's a great player," Haigh said of Williams. "She works very, very hard. She worked really hard on her conditioning this summer. I think that's paying off."
Lilley had nine points and three assists, while Fleming had eight points and five rebounds.
But just their presence and leadership on the floor is what Haigh believes will carry the Flash.
"If we don't have those two, I don't think we win the game," he said. "We have seniors that have been in playoff games and have been in those situations. They've been though so many close, hard-fought games like that, so they are able to keep their heads."
Things got complacent after Lilley drained a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc with 7:04 remaining to give the Red Flash an 11-point lead.
St. Francis struggled to score and went on a 5:55 drought before Lilley hit a pull-up jumper, but the defense did enough to maintain a comfortable cushion.
"We had plenty of chances to put the game away there and didn't do that," Haigh said. "It is a concern. We did run a couple of sets and got a couple of good looks, it just didn't go in. The overall execution was not very good down the stretch."
St. Francis travels to Bucknell on Wednesday and confidence certainly isn't lacking in the Red Flash locker room.
"It feels great [to be back]," Lilley said. "I was a little hesitant to see how I was going to play at full speed. But I'm pretty confident now that I've got the first one under my belt."
HOWARD (61): N. Deterville 1-1 0-1 2, Curly-Payne 8-15 2-3 18, Gorham 4-7 1-5 9, Doyle 6-22 9-13 21, Smith 5-11 0-0 11, Johnson 0-2 0-0 0, Brown 0-3 0-0 0, Bailey 0-4 0-0 0, P. Deterville 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-65 12-22 61.
ST. FRANCIS (69): Fleming 4-9 0-2 8, Williams 7-12 6-7 20, Gibbs 3-8 8-8 14, Lilley 3-7 2-2 9, Hayward 4-12 0-0 11, Carangelo 1-4 0-0 2, Brock 0-0 0-0 0, Sparks 0-0 0-0 0, Perkins 0-2 1-2 1, Keegan 2-2 0-0 4, Doogan 0-0 0-0 0, Phillips 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-56 17-21.
Halftime--St. Francis 33-30. 3-point goals--Howard 1-9 (Smith 1-2, Doyle 0-1, Bailey 0-2, Curly-Payne 0-4), St. Francis 4-20 (Hayward 3-10, Lilley 1-5, Fleming 0-1, Williams 0-1, Gibbs 0-1, Carangelo 0-2). Fouled out--Smith. Rebounds--Howard 33 (Doyle 7), St. Francis 33 (Williams 12). Assists--Howard 8 (Curly-Payne 4), St. Francis 11 (Lilley 3). Total fouls--Howard 17, St. Francis 19. A--506.