Five-game win streak puts Saint Francis in first

By Cory Giger

LORETTO — Saint Francis is exactly where it wants to be in the Northeast Conference standings — in first place and in control of its own destiny riding a five-game winning streak.

The Red Flash jumped out to a big lead, hit the snooze button for a little while, then finished strong in an 84-75 win over Bryant on Saturday night at DeGol Arena.

The win, coupled with Robert Morris’ home loss to Central Connecticut State, leaves both the Flash and Colonials at 8-4 in the NEC. Saint Francis already has beaten Robert Morris, so it holds the tiebreaker now, and there’s a huge game next Saturday when the Colonials visit DeGol Arena.

If the Flash can win that game — giving them all tiebreakers over Robert Morris — and continue to take care of business, the program could be in line for its first regular-season league title since 1991.

“To be in this position, it’s certainly something I know these guys expect,” SFU coach Rob Krimmel said of his team, which was picked to win the NEC in the preseason.

Saint Francis, though, opened conference play with a 3-4 record but has turned things around with this impressive winning streak.

“We had the mindset then as we keep now — it’s 1-0,” said point guard Jamaal King, who scored a game-high 27 points. “We’ve had five games, it’s been 1-0 (mindset each game) that’s led to this right here.”

The Flash (12-11) have proven they can win any type of game, be it storming back from big deficits or holding on after giving up big leads. The latter, though, is an issue the team must correct down the stretch.

For the second game in a row, SFU squandered a big lead as the opponent rallied. Central Connecticut State couldn’t come all the way back from 21 down Thursday, but Bryant erased a 14-point second-half deficit and actually grabbed a four-point lead with seven minutes left Saturday.

Down 62-58, King was fouled on a 3 and made all three free throws. Isaiah Blackmon made a 3-pointer for the lead, then Andre Wolford buried another 3 to cap a quick 9-0 run that provided a 67-62 edge.

Bryant (8-15, 5-7) was down 70-68 with 3:06 left, but the veteran Flash once again closed well and pulled away for the win.

Learning how to deal with the prosperity of a lead is something the Flash are still figuring out.

“When you get up big, you don’t really want to let the other team speed you up,” King said before later adding, “A lot of it has to do with us taking that next step and being mature and playing how we play.”

It can be a challenge for any team to keep playing the way it’s supposed to play when it gets a big lead, as opposed to settling in and just trying to play out the clock while the opponent desperately tries to fight back.

“It’s a fine line because I want our guys to play with confidence,” Krimmel said. “I want them to play very free on offense. I think our challenge is on the defensive side of the ball and not let teams get those consecutive scores.”

Backup center Mark Flagg came up big for the Flash with 15 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, and he played great down the stretch with some big buckets and blocks to keep SFU in front.

Flagg said Krimmel showed the team an article a while back about being mentally tough when things aren’t going well, and that helped him refocus and play well late in games.

“The article is probably the best thing I’ve read,” Flagg said.

Blackmon had 14 points and Keith Braxton 11 to go along with nine rebounds for SFU. SaBastian Townes led Bryant with 19 points.

Saint Francis plays a big game at Fairleigh Dickinson on Thursday. The Knights already beat the Flash in Loretto, and they also eliminated Saint Francis from the NEC Tournament last year.

BRYANT (8-15): Cardenas 3-4 4-6 12, Townes 8-17 3-3 19, Grant 7-15 4-5 21, Hawkins 3-8 0-0 7, McHugh 2-5 2-2 7, Harding 0-2 0-0 0, Kasperzyk 2-6 2-2 7, Hernandez 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 26-58 15-18 75.

ST. FRANCIS (12-11): Laporal 0-0 0-0 0, Braxton 4-11 3-5 11, Blackmon 4-10 2-4 14, King 6-11 12-13 27, Gaskins 2-6 2-2 7, Thompson 2-3 0-0 4, Flagg 6-7 3-5 15, Wolford 2-6 0-0 6. Totals 26-54 22-29 84.

Halftime–St. Francis 39-28. 3-Point Goals–Bryant 8-23 (Grant 3-7, Cardenas 2-3, Kasperzyk 1-2, Hawkins 1-3, McHugh 1-4, Townes 0-4), St. Francis 10-21 (Blackmon 4-8, King 3-5, Wolford 2-4, Gaskins 1-3, Braxton 0-1). Fouled Out–Kasperzyk. Rebounds–Bryant 29 (Townes 9), St. Francis 30 (Braxton 9). Assists–Bryant 11 (Townes, McHugh 3), St. Francis 18 (Braxton 7). Total Fouls–Bryant 21, St. Francis 18. A–1,459