Flash set for rubber match

LORETTO – There’s Quinnipiac, and then there’s the rest of the Northeast Conference.

The Bobcats were a perfect 18-0 when the regular season ended last week, putting them a staggering five games ahead of the rest of the league.

They are the odds-on favorite to win the NEC championship, but seven other teams – including St. Francis – will make them earn it.

“I think we have as good of a chance as anyone in the league to beat them,” St. Francis coach Joe Haigh said. “But they are a very good team. They’ve been amazingly consistent all year. I think we’d have a good shot against them.”

St. Francis will have to get past Central Connecticut State first, as the fourth-seeded Red Flash (15-14, 10-8 NEC) host the fifth-seeded Blue Devils (16-13, 10-8) in today’s quarterfinals at 3 p.m. at DeGol Arena.

The two teams protected their respective home floors and split this year’s season series. St. Francis won, 67-62, on Feb. 7, and Central Connecticut snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Flash with a 76-71 win on the final day of the regular season.

But despite the recent loss, Haigh feels his team has a few advantages.

“The major advantage is playing them at home,” he said. “Knowing that we’re coming back home, knowing we should shoot the basketball a little bit better, we should get a little more a boost from our crowd.”

It’s a unique situation, but St. Francis is no stranger to opening the NEC playoffs with the team it concluded the regular season against.

The Red Flash beat Robert Morris in consecutive games in 2009 on their was to a title game appearance.

“From the scouting report part of it, it’s a big advantage because we’re playing [CCSU] right away,” Haigh said, noting that most of the preparation was already done. “It’s a quick turnaround.”

St. Francis and Central Connecticut have had a handful of tough battles over the past few years, and if history is par for the course, Sunday’s matchup will also have that championship-type feel.

“It’s a tough matchup with Central because of their defensive philosophy and the way they play the game,” Haigh said. “They are an extremely physical team. They play a tougher style than most of the teams in the league.

“A big difference with Central this year, for a team that’s so physical defensively, they’re so dangerous in transition. They’re very disciplined in transition.”

The Red Flash’s Alli Williams comes into the game averaging 17.4 points (second in the NEC) and 10.8 rebounds (fourth) per game.

She and the Blue Devils’ Jaclyn Babe were all-NEC and College Sports Madness first team selections. Williams also picked up the Player of the Year award from CSM.

“I think it’s great for her,” Haigh said of Williams. “It’s great for the program to get the recognition. She’s had an amazing season. I know she was in consideration for player of the year, and I have to believe she was one of the top three in the league.

“I’ve been saying it all year. The way that she has improved at the end of last season coming into this year, and the things she did to get ready to play this season – she really worked hard. And for working that hard, it’s good to see it pay off for her and get results from it. We wouldn’t be where we are without her.”

Babe is fourth in the league in scoring (16.0). She averaged 27 points in two games against the Flash this season.

“Jackie Babe is the primary offensive threat,” Haigh said. “She’s a great player. She has improved from last year. You can tell she continues to work on her game as a fifth-year senior. She make open shots. She doesn’t miss too many. She makes plays better than almost any kid in the league.”

Should St. Francis win today, they’ll more than likely have to play on the road on Wednesday, which is something that hasn’t worked well lately for the Flash.

They won their first three NEC road games this season before dropping their final six.

“If I knew, or there was an answer to it, I’d fix that problem,” Haigh said of his team’s road woes. “But we have really stunk – we’ve been bad on the road. We’ve just had no intensity and no fire. Our starters have been really flat for whatever reason. I don’t have an answer. It bothers me a lot.

“The Central Connecticut game is going to be a very tough one to get past. But if we get by them, we have to go on the road. Hopefully in a playoff atmosphere something sparks and we play a little better.”

Playoff predictions

Quarterfinals – No. 1 Quinnipiac (27-2, 18-0) over No. 8 Bryant (12-17, 8-10); No. 7 St. Francis Brooklyn (11-18, 8-10) over No. 2 Sacred Heart (21-9, 13-5); No. 3 Monmouth (15-14, 12-6) over No. 6 Mount St. Mary’s (14-15, 10-8); No. 4 St. Francis (15-14, 10-8) over No. 5 Central Connecticut (16-13, 10-8).

Semifinals – Quinnipiac over St. Francis Brooklyn; St. Francis over Monmouth.

Championship – Quinnipiac over St. Francis.