LORETTO - When the Central Connecticut State and St. Francis women's basketball teams face each other, a championship-like battle almost always ensues.
Sunday afternoon was no different.
The fourth-seeded Red Flash got in the final swing, though, as they survived the Blue Devils, 66-63, in the Northeast Conference Tournament quarterfinals at DeGol Arena.
"I have so much respect for Central Connecticut and the way that they play, how hard they defend, and how physical they are," St. Francis coach Joe Haigh said. "We know consistently that it's going to be a battle when we play."
In a back-and-forth, extremely physical contest, it was none other than Alli Williams that delivered the knockout punch.
Williams scored the final six points of the game, including four from the free-throw line and the go-ahead layup with 27 seconds remaining, to seal St. Francis' 24th consecutive home playoff victory. She finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds for her 22nd double-double of the season.
"We worked hard this week in practice," Williams said. "We did a lot of scrimmaging. We have coach Eddie [Benton] on the scout team and he's the most competitive person I've ever met. We prepared a lot. We knew the scout pretty well. We knew it was going to be a battle. We stuck it out, and I'm very proud of us."
The Red Flash (16-14), who earned the program's 40th NEC Tournament win, knew they had to contain Central Connecticut's Jaclyn Babe.
And for the most part, they were successful.
But the senior still found incredible ways to score a game-high 27 points.
"Jackie kept us in the game making some crazy shots," Central Connecticut coach Beryl Piper said. "She just played as hard as she could to try to get us the win today. She's a great player. They were all over her and she still found a way to score 27. She was trying to will us to win."
"I thought we did a great job defending her and she still scored 27 on us," Haigh said. "Sometimes when you give it everything you've got and the girl still hits a shot on you, that can be really deflating."
St. Francis didn't buckle, though.
Kia Gibbs drew the defensive assignment on the league's fourth-leading scorer and was deserving of her positive feelings on the effort she gave.
"I was supposed to limit [Babe's] touches, shut her down," Gibbs said. "She's a great player. I just wanted to pressure her and get her flustered a little bit, contain her. I tried my best. I wanted the task to guard her and try to disrupt her game a little bit. She got off a little bit, but I'm proud of myself and my teammates."
But Gibbs' work on the defensive end wasn't the only thing the senior did well.
She had a team-high 20 points on a 9-for-14 effort.
"When I was open, I just knocked them down with confidence," Gibbs said.
Rebounds were a big factor, too.
St. Francis dominated on the glass, holding a 48-35 advantage.
Shene Fleming cleaned house with 14 rebounds, seven on the offensive end.
"There was a point in the game where I kind of said to myself, 'Shene, you're probably going to struggle scoring today,'" said Fleming, who was 0-for-3 from the field and 0-for-1 from the line, "so I wanted to grab every rebound I could and make sure that we owned the boards today. And we did."
The Blue Devils (16-14) jumped out to a 12-point lead just 5:28 into the game, but the Red Flash bounced back and trailed by only three at the half thanks to a Rebecca Keegan bucket and a Gibbs steal and layup - all in the final six seconds.
St. Francis didn't get its first lead until Gibbs knocked down a jumper 3:01 into the second half.
"We don't win without it," Haigh said of his team's spurt surrounding the break. "You can't over-state how critical that stretch was. We needed those plays."
"We battled," Piper said. "We just couldn't get on that little run that we needed to get on in the second half."
The Red Flash will travel to Sacred Heart for Wednesday's semifinals. The Pioneers earned two blowout wins this season over St. Francis by a combined 46 points.
"It's going to take an effort like today," Haigh said of his team's chances. "This matchup today prepared us for that game. They have great players. Very similar to Central, they've got a scorer, a great guard. We have to have an effort like today and probably hit a couple more shots."
Game notes: Central Connecticut got its first point of the game before the opening tip-off. St. Francis was issued an administrative technical foul for changing its starters after the pregame deadline. Jaclyn Babe made 1-of-2 from the line. "We had a miscommunication on the coaching staff," Haigh said of the error. "We've been alternating between two starting lineups. We had one in the book and one in the locker room to do the pregame. We ran out [to the book] and changed it when we shouldn't have." ... Keegan was one point shy of a double-double. She had nine points and 11 rebounds. ... SFU's Rebecca Sparks had a career-high 12 points. ... Kirsten Daamen scored 14 points for CCSU, and Jessica Babe had a team-high 11 rebounds. ... The Red Flash bench outscored the Blue Devils, 13-0.
CENTRAL CONNECTICUT (63): Arbogast 3-8 0-0 7, Daamen 6-8 2-3 14, Ja. Babe 12-17 1-2 2-4 27, Watras 2-7 2-2 8, Je. Babe 2-10 2-3 7, Makins 0-1 0-0 0, Thomas 0-3 0-2 0, Fisher 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 8-14 63.
ST. FRANCIS (66): Fleming 0-3 0-1 0, Williams 5-15 6-8 19, Gibbs 9-14 0-0 20, Sparks 4-9 3-5 12, Hayward 1-9 0-0 2, Carangelo 1-5 0-0 2, Taylor 0-0 0-0 0, Brock 0-0 0-0 0, Perkins 1-2 0-0 2, Keegan 4-10 1-3 9, Doogan 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-69 10-17 66.
Halftime-Central Connecticut 37-34. 3-point goals-Central Connecticut 5-13 (Watras 2-4, Ja. babe 1-2, Arbogast 1-3, Je. Babe 1-3, Makins 0-1), St. Francis 6-21 (Williams 3-6, Gibbs 2-2, Sparks 1-3, Carangelo 0-2, Doogan 0-2, Hayward 0-6). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Central Connecticut 35 (Je. Babe 11), St. Francis 48 (Fleming 14). Assists-Central Connecticut 16 (Thomas 6), St. Francis 16 (Sparks 4). Technical fouls-St. Francis (bench). Total fouls-Central Connecticut 20, St. Francis 17. A-462.