Flash dancing again
Saint Francis women clinch NCAA Tournament berth, will learn matchup tonight
LORETTO — They’re back!
After a six year absence, Saint Francis is headed back to the NCAA Tournament as the Red Flash punched their ticket with a 66-56 Northeast Conference championship game victory over Robert Morris on Sunday afternoon at DeGol Arena.
“I’m so excited for our players. The long six-month journey of one year was actually longer for these guys because it’s been a two-year process to get to this point,” Saint Francis coach Joe Haigh said. “So, I’m really excited for our players to end with a championship this year. It’s exciting for the players and everybody at Saint Francis … It was awesome to be able to do this on our home court.”
SFU claimed its NEC-best 12th tournament crown, and in the process, ran its record to 24-9 as it is back in the big dance for the first time since 2011.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Red Flash leading by just seven (58-51), Robert Morris kept possession after SFU forced a jump ball.
On the baseline out of bounds, Megan Callahan’s lob to Jocelynne Jones was stolen away around the foul line by Saint Francis’ Caitlyn Kroll who, in mid-air, tipped it back to Ace Harrison.
Harrison took one dribble and threw a strike to a streaking Jessica Kovatch who glided in for a layup while being hacked by Jones.
The basket had an already loud crowd on its feet once again and fired up the SFU players while seemingly take the wind out of the Colonials’ sails.
Kovatch nailed the free throw to complete the three-point play that put the Red Flash up 10 (61-51) with 1:31 remaining in the game.
“When Kroll threw the ball and Ace threw it up to me, I was actually going to lob it to Ace, but at that point it was too late,” Kovatch said. “So, I just threw it up myself and it went in. You know, I’m an emotional player, so I let out my emotions after that play … We needed a little spark to our offense, and I think that’s what it was.”
Jones knocked down one-of-two foul shots to trim the lead back to single digits at the 1:27 mark, but a turnover by Robert Morris on a traveling call in the backcourt on its next opportunity put them in foul mode as there was less than a minute to go.
Saint Francis, which hit 20-of-26 from the charity stripe for the day, had Kroll hit all four of hers, while Maya Wynn went one-for-two.
The second two by Kroll came with 17 ticks left and gave the Red Flash their largest lead of the game, 66-53.
The senior Jones, who was named to the all-tournament team, established a new career high with 21 points when she buried her fifth 3-pointer of the day just eight seconds later to set the final.
Kovatch, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player, finished with 29 points and broke the NEC record for most points in the tournament with 103. The previous mark was held by SFU great Jess Zinobile, who had 102 back in 2000.
Saint Francis will find out its NCAA tournament fate during tonight’s ESPN selection special show at 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, Robert Morris (25-7), by virtue of tying for the regular season title with SFU, will represent the conference in the WNIT.
“I’m proud as a coach to coach these guys. To see them really understand what this is really all about,” Robert Morris coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “It’s about challenging yourself everyday to be the best you can be. And going out here and maybe getting off to a little start like we did, but to come back and to keep going after it and keep fighting. This was a typical loss of ours where we continued to fight, not one of those losses that got away from us. One of those losses where we just fell a little short at the end.”
The Red Flash began the game with a flurry — keyed by nine points from Kovatch — that had them up 15-4 following a layup by Courtney Zezza at the 4:32 point.
The Colonials were not about to become SFU’s next blowout victim as they tightened up the defense and finished the first quarter on an 8-0 run as Megan Smith, Mikalah Mulrain, Nneka Ezeigbo and Honoka Ikematsu scored inside to close the gap to 15-12.
“Robert Morris has really, really good post players,” Harrison said. “Coming into the game, we knew that was going to be an uphill battle for us … We just kind of took it upon ourselves to know that, ‘hey, it’s going to take all of us to be able to defend here and to be able to rebound and box out’.”
Things continued to unravel for the Red Flash in the second quarter as the RMU defense was giving them fits by taking them out of what they’re used to doing on the offensive side.
SFU played right into the defensive game plan of the Colonials by forcing the driving lanes that were quickly closed as Robert Morris forced six turnovers in a second quarter that featured four ties, including a 26-26 contest at the half.
“That’s the backbone of our who principle defense is just staying in front of the ball,” Smith said. “Try to dig on all penetrations. (Twenty-three) turnovers is something that we should expect to get each game.”
Robert Morris wasted no time taking the lead in the third when Mulrain, who totaled 10 points, went up-and-under Zezza, who responded by hitting back-to-back treys to put the Red Flash back up by four (32-28).
Jones followed up a Smith trifecta by converting a layup at the 6:19 mark to give RMU its largest lead at 38-35.
“My teammates just continue to believe in me. My coaching staff continues to believe in me,” Jones said. “That’s all it is. I just continue to try and work on my shot in the gym, and my teammates were finding me. I was open so I just kept shooting the ball.”
Kroll’s layup off an inbound feed put Saint Francis on top for good with 4:55 left to play in the third stanza.
The Red Flash scored the next six points of the game on free throws as Kovatch hit two and Haley Thomas connected on four-of-five to push the lead to 47-40.
SFU, still leading by five, was uncharacteristically losing the turnover battle heading into the final quarter by an 18-8 (with only three steals) margin.
That all changed as the Red Flash ramped up its defensive intensity by turning the Colonials over 10 times — eight of which came on steals — in the final 10 minutes to increase their lead to double digits (54-44) when Harrison drilled a 3-pointer from the right side with 7:51 showing on the clock.
“I thought today, we didn’t play our best game but we did enough,” Haigh said. “We were so excited, pumped up for the game. I think we were kind of uncharacteristic some in the first half. We made more mistakes than we would have liked to. But, we regrouped at halftime, calmed down some and really did a great job in that third quarter (and) fourth quarter with our defensive effort.”
A 7-2 spurt by Robert Morris had it right back within five at 56-51 when Smith, who finished with 10 points, hit a hook shot at the 4:02 mark.
Kovatch, who passed up Beth Swink (2,127) for third place on the school’s all-time scoring list and now sits at 2,149, came up with a steal and layup with 3:33 left to stretch the Red Flash lead out to the seven points that set up the game-ending sequence that began with the Kroll steal.
“Before the game even started, I knew it was our game,” Wynn said. “They (Robert Morris) gave us a hard time, but we pushed through, we made shots and we defended which is everything we were supposed to do.”
Kroll, who was named to the all-tournament team, delivered 12 points and tied a career-high with 10 rebounds. Meanwhile, Harrison also ripped down 10 boards.
Sacred Heart’s Tykera Carter and LIU Brooklyn’s Denisha Petty-Evans were also named to the all-tournament team.
ROBERT MORRIS (25-7): Jones 7-11 2-4 21, Mulrain 5-8 0-0 10, Smith 3-9 3-4 10, Callahan 2-10 0-0 5, Ikematsu 1-8 0-0 2, Carrasco 0-0 0-0 0, Augustin 1-7 0-0 2, Pluviose 0-2 0-0 0, Ezeigbo 3-10 0-2 6. Totals: 22-65 5-10 56.
SAINT FRANCIS (24-9): Zezza 3-5 0-0 8, Harrison 3-6 0-1 8, Kroll 4-12 4-4 12, Wynn 0-3 2-4 2, Kovatch 8-17 10-12 29, Swogger 0-2 0-0 0, Morrow 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Thomas 1-1 4-5 7. Totals: 19-46 20-26 66.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Robert Morris 12 14 18 12 — 56
Saint Francis 15 11 23 17 — 66
3-point field goals: Robert Morris 7-22 (Jones 5-7, Smith 1-2, Callahan 1-7, Augustin 0-2, Ikematsu 0-4); Saint Francis 8-20 (Kovatch 3-7, Zezza 2-3, Harrison 2-3, Thomas 1-1, Kroll 0-2, Wynn 0-2, Swogger 0-2). Rebounds: Robert Morris 38 (Smith 8); Saint Francis 37 (Harrison, Wynn 10 each). Assists: Robert Morris 11 (Smith, Augustin 4 each); Saint Francis 12 (Harrison 5). Blocks: Robert Morris none; Saint Francis 2 (Smith, Thomas 1 each). Steals: Robert Morris 9 (Augustin 4); Saint Francis 12 (Zezza, Kroll, Kovatch 3 each). Turnovers: Robert Morris 18; Saint Francis 23. Total fouls: Robert Morris 24; Saint Francis 13. Fouled out: none. Technicals: none.
Officials: Kevin Pethel, Shannon Feck, Michael Schmidt.