Flash will play for NEC title

FAIRFIELD, CT — On Thursday night, Saint Francis had to return to the same building where 12 days prior, Sacred Heart beat them soundly by 26 points.

Before a raucous crowd, the Pioneers got off to a start that had the makings of the same result.

This time, the Red Flash had something to say about that as they fought back, took the lead with a run that spanned the third into the fourth quarter, and ultimately, held off SHU down the stretch to claim the 68-60 Northeast Conference semifinal victory at the William H. Pitt Center.

“After that game, we didn’t have to talk to each other because we all knew we weren’t ourselves,” Saint Francis senior Jess Kovatch said. “We kind of just, at that point, knew if we wanted a chance to play for a championship that we were going to play our game and have confidence in ourselves and our teammates.”

Saint Francis (16-16) moves into the championship where it will meet Robert Morris, a 69-65 winner over Mount St. Mary’s, for the second straight season. Tip time is 2 p.m. in Moon Township on Sunday.

“We’re happy to be moving on and back into the championship on Sunday, that’s for sure,” Saint Francis coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl said. “I’m so proud of all of these guys. Our players — all of them. The ones that didn’t play a minute to the ones that played several minutes. They really gave it their all and that’s just something we talked about.”

Sacred Heart (19-12) can only wait and hope for a bid to a postseason tournament.

“Unfortunate outcome for us,” Sacred Heart coach Jess Mannetti said. “I thought we fought for 40 minutes and we went a little cold (shooting) at the end. But, I give a lot of credit to Saint Francis. They came a played really aggressive. They forced us into some tough situations, especially down the stretch.”

Trailing 43-41 in the third quarter, Kovatch took a pass from Haley Thomas, bobbled it, gathered it, turned and fired up a 32-foot shot that splashed through the net to put the Red Flash on top for the first time in the contest at the 5:02 mark.

Candice Leatherwood, who carried the Pioneers in the first half, responded by grabbing a defensive rebound and driving coast-to-coast for a layup to put her team back up 45-44 with 4:25 left in the third.

Two free throws from Kovatch, who led all scorers with 23 points, put SFU in the lead for good just 14 seconds later.

“We knew she (Kovatch) was going to get her 20 (points). We don’t really game plan around her,” Mannetti said. “… We didn’t do a great job stopping the other players from stepping up and feeling comfortable. I think that’s what kind of bit us at the end.”

The Kovatch points also kickstarted a 16-5 run by Saint Francis that saw it grab the largest lead of the game of 11 (61-50) when Sam Sabino converted a layup off a pass from Leah Morrow with 5:40 left in the matchup.

During the run, SFU received a big push from Aunesha Williams who helped turn a one-point margin at 48-47 into a six point lead in a span of 1:18. The graduate transfer made a layup, then pulled down a defensive rebound before coming up with a steal and assist to Phee Allen who converted the layup and jump shot to make the score 54-48 with 16.3 to go in the third.

“I just came in, and I know coach needed me to step up and do what I had to do,” Williams said. “So, I came in and helped any way I could.”

The two teams struggled at the outset of the final stanza as SFU’s Haley Thomas’ putback of her own miss with 6:55 on the clock was the first points.

Kovatch made three free throws before Sabino’s layup earned the Red Flash the 11-point edge.

“You know, we missed some wide-open layups. I can think of probably eight points on fastbreak layups — we don’t miss those,” Mannetti said. “We just missed some wide-open shots tonight. It was just one of those where you’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, can we just hit one to just stop this momentum.”

The Pioneers were far from ready to fold as they cut the Saint Francis lead down to four (61-57) on a pair of foul shots from Katherine Haines, who tallied 14 points, a trey from Leatherwood, who finished with 21 points, and a driving layup by Erin Storck, who registered 13 points.

Senior Courtney Zezza kissed a driving floater off the backboard with 1:19 left to end the Red Flash scoring drought.

Sacred Heart was forced to go into foul mode with under a minute to play, and SFU kept the door open as Thomas missed a pair and Sabino made just 1-of-2. However, the Pioneers were called for a travel, and Sabino came up with a steal that she converted into two foul shots after being fouled with 23.4 remaining.

“I do think our depth maybe tired them out a bit,” Robinson-Fruchtl said. “We were giving a lot of pressure even in the zone.”

Storck, who played her final game for SHU, knocked down a 3-pointer with 15.7 showing on the clock before Kovatch made two free throws with 14.1 to go that set the final.

The Pioneers would jump out early to a 7-2 edge as Saint Francis was unable to take care of the ball with three turnovers on three straight opportunities.

“We were down 7-2 right away. They (Sacred Heart) got a lot of offensive rebounds, so they got second opportunities and those things, it had to stop,” Robinson-Fruchtl said. “These guys understand that, they see it, they know the game. So, it was a really concerted effort by them to dig in, gut things out and go after every loose ball with two hands and give it everything they’ve got.”

No matter how many times SFU appeared ready to make a run, Sacred Heart always had an answer in the opening quarter. The Pioneers would cough up the ball three straight times down the floor that allowed the Red Flash to close the quarter with a driving layup from Kovatch and a 1-for-2 showing by Thomas from the free throw line to make the score 22-17.

Kovatch was confined to the bench with two fouls for nearly half of the second quarter.

Rather than allow Sacred Heart to extend its lead, Saint Francis rallied all the way back from a 29-21 deficit at the 6:26 mark to tying the contest at 32-32 with an 11-3 run capped off by a 26-foot 3-pointer from Thomas with 1:29 to go before the half.

“At that point I knew I’m not going to do my team any justice sitting on the bench,” Kovatch said. “So, I had to stay focused. In the second quarter, my team definitely cut the lead, and I think that was a turning point in the game. Everyone who went in had a positive impact. All I did was cheer them on.”

The Pioneers would respond immediately as Leatherwood buried her third triple of the half just 25 seconds later.

The two teams exchanged turnovers with the latter by SHU being on a steal by SFU’s Caitlin Carroll, who tossed ahead to Karson Swogger who got fouled with 0.4 ticks to go on a layup attempt.

Swogger, who recorded 16 points, including 11 in the opening half, knocked down the pair from the foul line to send the Red Flash into the break down just one (35-34).

“You’ve got to have a shooters mentality … I just go in some down-spurts sometimes, but I know that I’ve just got to shoot my way out of it,” Swogger said. “Yesterday, my dad had a prayer with me and talked about that I shouldn’t have any doubt (because) God’s going to give me the confidence today.”

SAINT FRANCIS (68): Zezza 2-8 1-1 5, Swogger 6-12 2-2 16, Sabino 1-5 3-4 5, Thomas 3-9 1-4 8, Kovatch 6-15 9-9 23, Morrow 1-3 0-0 2, Williams 1-2 0-0 2, Allen 2-3 0-0 4, Carroll 1-1 0-0 3. Totals: 23-58 16-20 68.

SACRED HEART (60): Haines 5-13 4-4 14, Davis 0-3 1-2 1, Storck 5-13 1-2 13, Murphy 1-3 0-0 2, Leatherwood 8-16 0-1 21, Hagood 3-7 1-2 9, Kangudie 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 22-56 7-11 60.

SCORE BY QUARTERS

Saint Francis 17 17 20 14 – 68

Sacred Heart 22 13 15 10 – 60

3-point field goals: Saint Francis 6-21 (Swogger 2-4, Kovatch 2-10, Carroll 1-1, Thomas 1-3, Sabino 0-1, Zezza 0-2); Sacred Heart 9-25 (Leatherwood 5-10, Hagood 2-5, Storck 2-6, Haines 0-2, Murphy 0-2). Rebounds: Saint Francis 36 (Thomas 9); Sacred Heart 35 (Haines 9). Assists: Saint Francis 9 (Swogger 3); Sacred Heart 15 (Storck 6). Blocks: Saint Francis 1 (Zezza 1); Sacred Heart 3 (Haines, Leatherwood, Kangudie 1 each). Steals: Saint Francis 11 (Thomas 3); Sacred Heart 5 (Storck 2). Turnovers: Saint Francis 13; Sacred Heart 19. Total fouls: Saint Francis 17; Sacred Heart 17. Fouled out: none. Technicals: none.

Officials: Margaret Tieman, Scott Osborne, Michael Henderson.

A: 552.

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