Big challenges await SFU women

HAMDEN, Conn. – Wednesday night was an incredible night for the St. Francis women’s basketball team.

The Red Flash faced their toughest challenge of the season in knocking off a Sacred Heart team that owned them in the regular season.

Today, they have to do it again.

Only this time it’s for the Northeast Conference championship – against the NEC Coach of the Year, the NEC Defensive Player of the Year, and a team that finished undefeated in the league and is one win away from its first NCAA Tournament berth.

But first-year St. Francis coach Joe Haigh is confident his team can contend for the program’s 12th title.

“We know we can play with them,” Haigh said. “But the way we can play with them is the way we played against Sacred Heart. If we come out and play with that intensity, that fire and energy – when we play that hard and that focused, our shots tend to fall. And when we’re making shots, we can beat anybody.”

It’s been evident that the Flash have had to rely on junior Alli Williams to get her points, but they’ve also had a good effort from a few unlikely candidates.

Senior Kia Gibbs scored 20 points in St. Francis’ quarterfinal win over Central Connecticut, and freshman Rebecca Sparks exploded for 27 in Wednesday’s semifinal.

Everyone on the bench is capable of taking over a game.

“It’s game to game,” Haigh said. “We never know who will have that type of game. Hopefully we can get that effort from a few different people this time.”

St. Francis (17-14) will have to be aware of Quinnipiac’s NEC Defensive Player of the Year, Felicia Barron, on both ends of the floor.

But it’s her defensive presence that helped the Bobcats force a combined 49 turnovers in their two meetings with the Red Flash this season.

“Barron is first-team all-league for a reason,” Haigh said. “She has total freedom to gamble. She is a great on-the-ball defender, she is very smart. She baits people into mistakes and takes chances and gets a lot of steals. That’s where a lot of her offense comes from. She’s great in transition and shoots the ball well.

“We’ve got to know where she is on the defensive end of the floor.”

Offensively, the Bobcats (29-2) lead the league in scoring with 71.1 points per game.

“They’ll space the floor pretty well,” Haigh said. “They don’t have to run a lot of tricky plays. They’re so talented and know each other so well that they can just play basketball. It makes them a handful.”

NEC Coach of the Year Tricia Fabbri has been known this season for her mass-substitutions, mimicking a line change in hockey.

The process has certainly been effective as Quinnipiac went 18-0 in the NEC this season and several players hover around the 10-point per game mark.

“Quinnipiac is a great team and they are having a special season this year,” Haigh said. “They have great players and they play their roles extremely well.

“I think they are the deepest team in the league. I feel I play a ton of people and give everybody a chance. Quinnipiac does the same thing. They’re so deep that they can put in five people off of the bench together and play them together for a few minutes. You almost have to prepare, in a way, for that second team coming in, too.”

St. Francis entered the playoffs on a two-game road losing skid.

Now the Red Flash are 40 minutes away from a two-game road winning streak and yet another trip to the Big Dance.

“We definitely weren’t peaking coming into the playoffs,” Haigh said. “We backed into it with a couple of losses. We’ve really come together in these last two games. That win at Sacred Heart was a special night. Everything came together and we played great. We need to do that one more time.

“It’s 40 minutes for a championship.”