Ready to Flash forward: SFU hosts Colonials for NCAA bid

LORETTO — Saint Francis and Robert Morris were picked first and second, respectively, in the preseason poll of the Northeast Conference and as the conference season moved along, there was no doubt who the top two teams were as the Red Flash and Colonials ran away from the rest of the pack very early.

“Us being No. 1 one is just going to motivate us even more to work hard,” SFU’s Ace Harrison said during preseason media day. “But we’re here, and it’s our time now.”

While the other eight teams battled back and forth all season long and traded places in the standings, the No. 1 and No. 2 spots were a lock after the second weekend of play — and no one else even got close to overtaking one of those spots.

“If you look around the country where the separation is and you look at the two teams at the top of all the conferences, we’re probably the only conference that has a seven-game difference between the top two and the rest of the teams,” Saint Francis coach Joe Haigh said.

So, it’s no surprise that SFU and RMU, which both finished 16-2 in NEC play, are set to meet in today’s championship game. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Saint Francis’ DeGol Arena.

“It’s a big moment, and it means a lot to get back to the championship game,” Haigh said. “It’s important to be back in the championship because we want to compete for championships every year.”

Not only did the teams each win on their own home floors throughout the year, but they both got caught on bad days as Saint Francis lost at home to Sacred Heart, while Robert Morris fell to St. Francis Brooklyn.

“Every game has a different identity to it,” Robert Morris coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “We have to be prepared, stay in our routines and continue to go through the process of how we prepare.

“We don’t look at any game bigger than the next. We don’t put pressure on any one game more than the other — we just embrace it that way. It’s a blessing at this point to still be playing, and we approach this game that way.”

The Red Flash have captured the most NEC Tournament titles all-time with 11, but it’s been since the 2010-11 season since they’ve hoisted the hardware — the longest such drought in program history since they won their first back in 1996.

Meanwhile, the Colonials have won two straight and three out of the last four, and have seven total.

So, this contest is the rubber match of a series in which Robert Morris holds a slight 43-41 all-time advantage. However, Saint Francis is barely ahead in the NEC Tournament matchups with a 5-4 record, while meetings in the title game are split at 1-1.

The game will feature about as big of a difference of a contrast of styles as possible.

“That’s the beauty of basketball. Each team has different styles, and we believe in what we are trying to do. We just have to stay true to what we want to do,” Buscaglia said. “You’ve played this team a couple of times, and we’ve learned from the win just like we’ve learned what we can from the loss.”

SFU wants to push the pace by running the floor, shooting quickly and then using its defense to pressure the ball full court in an effort to try to create turnovers that lead to easy baskets.

“There’s a big style contrast — completely, totally different style contrast. Robert Morris, their style of play — they are like a clone of the Virginia men’s team,” Haigh said. “On offense, they have two people setting screens constantly, and they use the shot clock and grind you down by slowing the tempo and being super physical.”

In the first meeting between the two teams, Robert Morris did a great job holding the rest of the Red Flash team in check but was unable to keep NEC player of the year Jessica Kovatch from lighting it up as she scored 42 points.

Despite the bad offensive games for every other SFU player, the visitors actually led in that one until the Colonials’ Megan Smith drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give her team a 63-62 victory.

In the rematch three weeks later at DeGol Arena, Robert Morris had Saint Francis playing its pace through two quarters of play as the Colonials led 27-22 at the half. However, Kovatch erupted in the third quarter for 18 points on six 3-pointers that completely changed the game and swung momentum for good in the Red Flash’s favor as they claimed a 68-47 win.

For the Red Flash, they have been building up to this game since they were upset in the quarterfinals by Central Connecticut State last year.

“Losing the first game in the quarterfinals, we knew we had that game. We were all disappointed, we were angry,” Kovatch said during preseason media day. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to learn from it. That’s kind of what the returnees are carrying over to this season that you work so hard and just to not give your all one game, costs you this season.”

SFU has shown through the first two games that it’s more than backing up those words from Kovatch as it has pounded both Fairleigh Dickinson (89-70) and Sacred Heart (78-47). On the opposite side, RMU grinded it out with Central Connecticut State (60-54) before blowing out LIU Brooklyn (74-44).

While there are plenty of differences between the two programs, one thing that Haigh and Buscaglia agree on is that in order for their team to win, they must play their own brand of basketball.

“We must regulate our emotions in the championship game. You want to get excited, but you can’t get too excited in the championship game,” Haigh said. “The team that handles that part of the game best — that’s the team that will have the best chance to win.”

“The challenge is to be the best at what we’re doing,” Buscaglia said. “We have to stay disciplined in what we want to do and not get caught into their style.”

Robert Morris at SFU women

Northeast Conference Tournament championship

Tipoff: 2 p.m. at DeGol Arena

Records: Robert Morris (25-6 overall, 16-2 Northeast Conference); Saint Francis (23-9, 16-2)

All-time series: Robert Morris leads 43-41

Coaches: Joe Haigh is 93-97 in his sixth season at Saint Francis; Charlie Buscaglia is 47-17 in his second year at Robert Morris.

TV: ESPNU (with Cara Capuano, play-by-play; Amanda Butler, color commentary)

Probable starters: Saint Francis — G Jessica Kovatch, 5-9 Jr. (24.8), G Caitlyn Kroll, 5-10 R-Fr. (13.5), G Maya Wynn, 5-11 Sr. (5.7), F Ace Harrison, 6-2 Gr. (11.0), F Courtney Zezza, 6-4 Jr. (7.2). Robert Morris — G Megan Callahan, 5-8 Fr. (9.2), G Honoka Ikematsu, 5-6 Fr. (9.1), F Jocelynne Jones, 6-0 Sr. (6.9), F Megan Smith, 6-1 Sr. (9.0), C Mikalah Mulrain, 6-3 Sr. (7.7).

Notes: Saint Francis and Robert Morris shared the regular season title, but SFU grabbed the top seed by virtue of a better RPI (117-132) … The two programs previously met in the championship game in 2005 when the Red Flash came out on top 65-50, and in 2014 when the Colonials won 78-64 … Saint Francis is 11-5 all-time in title games … RMU is 3-6 all-time against the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and are 11-2 when they are the No. 2 seed … This is the fifth straight year the Colonials have been in the finals and they’ve won three of the last four … Buscaglia was named the NEC coach of the year for the second straight, while Smith earned a spot on the first team and Ikematsu was on the all-rookie team … The winner will find out their NCAA Tournament destination on Monday night when the women’s field is unveiled on ESPN with their selection special at 7 p.m.

Scoring with the best of them (Kovatch’s national scoring rank): 1. Megan Gustafson, Iowa, 25.6; 2. Kovatch, 24.8; 3. Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State, 24.5; 4. Joyce Kennerson, Texas Southern, 24.2.

Mirror prediction: Saint Francis 68, Robert Morris 57

Comment: I don’t expect the start of the game will be like it was in the first two rounds. However, once the Red Flash get going, they’ll be dancing their way to the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time.

Mirror prediction record: 25-7

— Nate Ritchey

COMMENTS