Looking for a ‘miracle’: SFU draws UConn in tourney opener

LORETTO — The number 12.

That’s something that Saint Francis (24-9) and Connecticut (32-0) have in common.

On Sunday, the Red Flash claimed their 12th Northeast Conference crown, while the Huskies are gunning for their 12th national championship.

SFU and UConn have also played two other times in the NCAA Tournament — in 1999 and 2002.

It was announced on Monday night during ESPN’s selection show that a third meeting would be taking place as Saint Francis learned very quickly that it was the team that will get the first crack at stopping Connecticut’s march to another title.

“This is really exciting getting to go up against a historic team like UConn,” Saint Francis coach Joe Haigh said. “This is a great opportunity for us to represent Saint Francis, to showcase the school, our program and these players on a national stage and on national television.”

The game is set to tip off at 11 a.m. and is scheduled to be shown on ESPN2 from UConn’s Gampel Pavilion.

With the Huskies being the top overall seed, the announcement came immediately once the program began.

The other two teams that will play at Connecticut will be No. 8 Miami (Fla.) and No 9 Quinnipiac, which is a former member of the NEC. The winner of the SFU-UConn game will play the winner between the Hurricanes and Bobcats.

“If we were to compete and try and beat them, we’re looking to have a miracle happen,” Haigh said. “So, when we go in and I prepare for them, we’ll have something in the game plan in some small thing that we’ll find that we think can hopefully create that miracle. I have no idea what that is at this time. We’ll find it before tomorrow at practice time.”

Saint Francis hosted a watch party for players, coaches, administration, SFU athletic staffers, fans and media inside DeGol Arena, and the reaction was certainly anything but immediate or loud.

For one thing, the revelation came so quickly it didn’t appear that anyone was prepared for it. Secondly, the shock of it being UConn had to be more than surprising; and thirdly, the Red Flash thought they had played their way into a seed higher than No. 16.

“There’s two reactions to being seeded and playing UConn. The first one is probably that we feel like we are a better team than the worst team in the tournament to play them. Our RPI was in the Top 100 (99) and so, we thought we deserved a higher seed,” Haigh said. “The positive piece of it is it could be great for the program. We’re playing the top team in the country. … That’s what we’ll focus on. That will be the excitement of being in that situation.”

Ever since the experts such as Charlie Creme of ESPN released his weekly bracketology, the NEC title winner was expected to play in this very matchup.

However, upon completion of all the women’s tournament games yesterday, experts such as Creme, College Sports Madness, Land of 10 and SB Nation had Saint Francis moving up into the No. 15 seed and playing either South Carolina, Ohio State or Florida State — which would have been the No. 2 seed.

What’s done is done and no matter the reason, the Red Flash are heading to Storrs, Conn., where the program has been on two other occasions.

“There’s no guarantee that we’ll have a moment like this again,” Haigh addressed the crowd before the selection show began. “That’s what makes this all the more special.”

In 1999, the Jess Zinobile-led Red Flash suffered a 97-46 loss, and in 2002, the team was defeated 86-37.

The two teams actually shared one common opponent during the season in Cincinnati, which Saint Francis came back to defeat, 77-73. Meanwhile, the Huskies had their way with the Bearcats during the regular season meeting (106-65) and in the American Athletic Conference semifinals (75-21).

Ace Harrison is the lone Red Flash player with any NCAA Tournament experience as she went to two Final Fours as a member of the University of Maryland — during her redshirt year (an 87-61 loss to Notre Dame) and her redshirt freshman season.

During her redshirt freshman year, Harrison scored two points, had two rebounds and an assist in 10 minutes of action in an 81-58 loss to eventual national champ UConn.

The Terps also were knocked out in the Round of 32 by eventual Final Four participant Washington in Harrison’s last year.

Harrison encouraged the Saint Francis fan base to make the trip to cheer on the Red Flash.

“It’s like six hours. It’s not like I’m asking you to come out to Los Angeles,” Harrison said with a laugh. “I think it would be amazing to show these bigger schools and these fans that, ‘Hey, we’re a small school in Pennsylvania, but our fans are just as dedicated as anyone else’s.’ So I think it would be pretty cool to have some fans come out.”