SFU’s hopes of NCAA’s dashed

Next up will be NIT

Photo for the Mirror by J.D. Cavrich Saint Francis’ Keith Braxton walks off the court while Fairleigh Dickinson celebrates at DeGol Arena. Championship. Keith Braxton walks off the court wihile FDU starts to celebrate behind him.

LORETTO — Sometimes it’s tough to pinpoint exactly why a team loses. And sometimes it’s easy.

Saint Francis shot 4-of-17 from the free-throw line — at home, no less — in the program’s most important game in three decades.

The Red Flash lost by nine points.

SFU coach Rob Krimmel did his best to downplay the poor foul shooting as much as possible afterward, saying, “It won’t haunt us.”

But with an NCAA Tournament berth at stake, the members of this Red Flash team will probably always wonder what might have been if only that impossible-to-believe free-throw number had been something like 14-of-17 instead.

The top-seeded Flash got off to a great start, up nine in the first three minutes, and DeGol Arena was partying like it was 1991. But No. 2 seed Fairleigh Dickinson showed poise in the hostile road environment and played a strong all-around game in spoiling the party with an 85-76 win to capture the Northeast Conference Tournament title before 2,610 fans at DeGol Arena.

“It’s kind of simple: You’ve got to make your free throws. We didn’t do that tonight,” SFU point guard Jamaal King said.

FDU did, sinking 18-of-20 from the foul line. So, 90 percent for the Knights, 23.5 percent for SFU, which has always been a good shooting free-throw program and came in at 71.5 percent for the season.

The tough pill to swallow for Saint Francis is that, as well as FDU played, the Flash still played well enough in so many ways to win, only to be done in by the free throws. SFU made 12-of-23 from 3-point land, shot 48 percent overall, outrebounded FDU (29 to 25) and had 21 bench points to zero for the visitors.

FDU, however, not only shot the lights out — hitting 63.8 percent from the field on the night — it also made one big shot after another to keep fighting off every Flash rally attempt.

On three occasions, Knights point guard Jahlil Jenkins hit buckets with one or two seconds left on the shot clock, after Saint Francis had played strong defense for the entire possession.

“He made some 3s at the end of the clock,” FDU coach Greg Herenda said.

“That was huge,” Knights guard Darnell Edge said. “Jahlil made a lot of great plays tonight.”

Saint Francis (18-14) just couldn’t keep up with the hot-shooting Knights, especially missing so many free throws. The Flash were 1-of-9 from the line in the first half and trailed, 40-31.

There was one sequence where King scored and was fouled, and Herenda was called for a technical. Isaiah Blackmon missed both technical free throws, then King missed his and-1 free throw.

“We’re a good free-throw shooting team,” Krimmel said. “Guys who normally make those free throws missed them tonight. … That’s not the sole reason why we lost this game.”

FDU (20-13), which has won eight in a row since a 25-point home loss to the Flash a month ago, certainly did its part to win the game.

“They shot 65 percent … they played an amazing game,” King said.

“You could just tell FDU came to play,” Keith Braxton said.

The crowd was sensational all night at DeGol Arena and kept trying to will the Flash every time they got close.

A big turning point came with 11 minutes to go when Braxton grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to pull SFU within 55-52. That was the moment the Flash had their best chance, and the crowd was doing its part to help.

But on FDU’s next possession, Mike Holloway Jr. slammed one home, and the Knights were off and running. Braxton missed on the Flash’s next trip, then FDU’s Edge was fouled shooting a 3 by Andre Wolford and buried all three free throws to push the lead to 60-52.

Elyjah Williams converted a three-point play the next time down, and Edge hit two more free throws to cap a 10-0 run that pretty much sealed it.

“Just very, very proud of my guys to come in here and have the fortitude to withstand a good team and great crowd and go on the road and win another championship,” said Herenda, who has led his program to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years.

King, a senior, led Saint Francis with 21 points in the final home game of his career. Isaiah Blackmon had 13, Mark Flagg 12 and Braxton 10 to go along with 12 rebounds.

All five FDU starters scored in double figures, led by Edge with 21 and Jenkins and Kaleb Bishop 20 apiece.

Saint Francis now advances to the NIT, by virtue of winning the NEC regular-season title, and will wait until Sunday to find out its opponent.

FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON (20-13): Holloway 5-7 2-2 12, Bishop 8-10 1-2 20, Williams 5-8 2-3 12, Edge 6-12 7-7 21, Jenkins 6-10 6-6 20, Okeke 0-0 0-0 0, Saliba 0-0 0-0 0, Powell 0-0 0-0 0, McNamara 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-47 18-20 85.

ST. FRANCIS (18-14): Laporal 2-3 2-6 6, Blackmon 5-16 0-2 13, King 8-15 1-5 21, Braxton 4-10 1-2 10, Gaskins 2-4 0-0 5, Flagg 6-9 0-2 12, Thompson 0-1 0-0 0, Wolford 2-4 0-0 6, Dixon-Conover 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 30-63 4-17 76.

Halftime–Fairleigh Dickinson 40-31. 3-Point Goals–Fairleigh Dickinson 7-13 (Bishop 3-3, Edge 2-4, Jenkins 2-4, Holloway 0-1, Williams 0-1), St. Francis 12-23 (King 4-6, Blackmon 3-7, Wolford 2-4, Dixon-Conover 1-1, Gaskins 1-2, Braxton 1-3). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Fairleigh Dickinson 20 (Bishop 11), St. Francis 24 (Braxton 12). Assists–Fairleigh Dickinson 12 (Holloway 5), St. Francis 15 (King 8). Total Fouls–Fairleigh Dickinson 12, St. Francis 16. Technicals–Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda. A–2,610.