SFU one win from dancing

LORETTO — Saint Francis is right where it wants to be and where it thought it would be — in the Northeast Conference championship game.

The Red Flash used a near flawless defensive performance in the opening half and another outstanding start from Jessica Kovatch to advance with a 78-47 win over Sacred Heart in NEC semifinal action on Thursday night at DeGol Arena.

“I don’t know how you could play better. Our defensive effort was amazing,” Saint Francis coach Joe Haigh said. “… The way that we defended at the beginning of the game was, it was almost perfect. Holding a team to 13 (points) in the first half, we seemed like we were everywhere on the floor. We were in the right spots.”

The win bumped Saint Francis’ overall mark to 23-9 and moved the Red Flash into the 17th NEC Tournament championship game in school history — and first since 2013-14.

“The feeling is really amazing, and, I can’t describe it,” Maya Wynn said of advancing to the championship game.

Their opponent is co-regular season champion Robert Morris, which advanced with a 74-44 defeat of sixth-seeded LIU Brooklyn.

The championship game hosted by Saint Francis is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday and will be televised on ESPNU.

“This was one of our goals, and obviously, we’re playing for our seniors,” Kovatch said. “This is their last chance to get a ring. So, we want to win it for them. Sitting on the bench with Maya, just taking in the moment and knowing that on Sunday we’re going to be playing for a ring that we wanted ever since you’re a little kid, and you start playing basketball, and you want to win a championship.”

From the opening tip, the top-seeded Red Flash suffocated Sacred Heart, the fourth seed, with a defense that seems to be playing as well as it has all year.

“Someone asked me what it felt like to run into a buzzsaw outside (of the press conference) and that’s how it felt,” Sacred Heart coach Jessica Mannetti said of the game. “I have to give a lot of credit to Joe Haigh and to Saint Francis. The last time we were here, we had such a great game. They (Saint Francis) just came out with such redemption and such energy. I just give them a lot of credit.”

The SFU defense completely took the Pioneers out of any kind of rhythm they were hoping to find from the start as they managed just 13 points in the opening half.

SHU, a team that had won seven of its last eight games entering the contest, including a 69-68 upset of SFU on Feb. 17, played right into the Saint Francis game plan as they turned the ball over 20 times, which then led to 28 SFU points off of them.

“We don’t really think about what happened the last game out (against Sacred Heart). We just come out here and take care of business,” Ace Harrison said. “(We) do what we do best. What we do is we run, we press and we defend. Just coming out, playing our game and setting that pace early is the only thing that we thought about.”

With the defense creating all kind of havoc, the Red Flash offense was the beneficiary as Kovatch, for the second straight night, lit up the scoreboard in the first stanza by pouring in 17 of her 27 first-half points to help put her team up 14-1 until Katherine Haines converted a layup at the 5:07 mark.

Eight points is all the Pioneers would muster in the first, and the second quarter didn’t get any better as they managed just five.

Sacred Heart’s Candice Leatherwood hit a free throw to open the second before Kovatch, who finished with a game-high 35 points, answered with a 10-0 run of her own to push the lead out to 35-9 with 4:06 still to play in the half.

After a Tykera Carter layup and two more foul shots from Leatherwood, SFU would close out the opening 20 minutes with a 9-0 spurt to take a commanding 44-13 lead heading into halftime.

Saint Francis seemed to have the Pioneers heads spinning — unsure of where all the swarming defenders were coming from. The Red Flash got so into the minds of SHU that the visitors not only turned the ball over 10 times, including six on steals, but they also missed 10 layups and another four shots from point blank range.

“I would like to say it was a lack of discipline on our end,” Carter, who finished her career with a team-high 16 points, said. “Our offense requires a lot of discipline, and we kind of went away from that and we went away from our principles. Ultimately, that just caused us to look flustered out there, and be the team that we haven’t been for a whole month now.”

The second half was more of a formality as Saint Francis had put the game out of reach, and despite the fact that Sacred Heart evened up the scoring after halftime, 34-34, the Red Flash play in the first half was too much to overcome.

Wynn and Harrison, who are always credited with being the catalysts for the SFU press by using their length to make the opposition uncomfortable, turned in double-doubles each.

Wynn established a new career-high with 10 rebounds and also contributed 15 points, including a 3-pointer off a kickout from Harrison that gave the Red Flash their largest lead of the game at 38 points (70-32) with 7:30 left in the game, and four steals.

“The ball landed in my hands,” Wynn joked about setting a career-high in rebounds. “I just go after it. All of the sudden I just knew I had ten rebounds — it happens. I just wanted to go out there and play hard every second I’m out there.”

Harrison pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds, had 11 points, five assists, three steals and two blocks.

SACRED HEART (14-17): Dabney 1-7 0-0 3, Kangudie 2-7 1-2 5, Carter 7-19 0-0 16, Leatherwood 0-6 4-6 4, Hagood 4-10 0-0 11, Murphy 1-4 0-0 2, Haines 1-6 0-2 2, McCray 1-2 2-2 4, Ye 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 17-61 7-12 47.

SAINT FRANCIS (23-9): Zezza 1-4 0-0 2, Harrison 3-11 4-4 11, Kroll 2-7 2-2 7, Wynn 5-9 2-2 15, Kovatch 12-25 5-5 35, Swogger 0-2 2-2 2, Morrow 2-2 0-0 4, Mastellone 0-0 0-0 0, Carroll 0-0 0-0 0, Scott 0-0 0-0 0, Falvey 0-2 0-0 0, Smith 1-2 0-0 2, Thomas 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 26-65 15-15 78.


Sacred Heart 8 5 19 15 – 47

Saint Francis 25 19 17 17 – 78

3-point field goals: Sacred Heart 6-24 (Hagood 3-5, Carter 2-9, Dabney 1-4, Leatherwood 0-2, Murphy 0-2, Haines 0-2); Saint Francis 11-37 (Kovatch 6-16, Wynn 3-6, Kroll 1-4, Harrison 1-6, Thomas 0-1, Zezza 0-2, Swogger 0-2). Rebounds: Sacred Heart 43 (Kangudie 9); Saint Francis 41 (Harrison 11). Assists: Sacred Heart 5 (Carter 2); Saint Francis 16 (Harrison, Kroll 5 each). Blocks: Sacred Heart 1 (Dabney); Saint Francis 7 (Smith 4). Steals: Sacred Heart 5 (Kangudie, Carter, Leatherwood, Murphy, McCray 1 each); Saint Francis 14 (Wynn 4). Turnovers: Sacred Heart 20; Saint Francis 11. Total fouls: Sacred Heart 19; Saint Francis 14. Fouled out: Leatherwood. Technicals: none. A: 536.