For the third time in Sacred Heart women’s basketball history, the Pioneers are going dancin’.
On Sunday, Sacred Heart capped off their NEC Tournament run by defeating Monmouth University, 58-48, at the William H. Pitt Center in Fairfield.
“I couldn’t have been prouder of a group,” said Sacred Heart head coach Ed Swanson. “This team had to overcome a lot of hurdles. We worked hard. They bought-in and persevered through a lot of challenges that we threw at them – after losses, tough practices, benchings, and getting yelled at. They responded every time. That is the thing I will remember about them the most.”
Monmouth struck first when All-Tournament junior guard Alysha Womack, who garnered second team All-NEC honors this season, laid one in. The Pioneers, though, would hold Womack to 13 points and cause her to commit a game high six turnovers. Sacred Heart forced 22 turnovers in the game, leading to 21 points and 11 fast break points.
The lead would change hands five times until Pioneer senior guard Alexis Campbell hit a jumper with 16:41 left, giving Sacred Heart a 7-6 lead.
Campbell, who provides senior leadership off the court, made sure her presence was felt on the court in her final games on campus. In the tournament, Campbell set single game career highs in minutes, threes, and field goals and tied career highs in points in rebounds.
“I just feed off my team,” said Campbell. “Emotionally, I did not want it to end. I think my team pushed me to do that and that is how the tournament went. We all feed off of one another.”
Campbell’s hoop sent Sacred Heart on an eight minute, 21-4 run, with freshman guard Gabrielle Washington providing the exclamation point with a jump shot, giving the Pioneers a 28-10 advantage, their largest of the game. Washington, the NEC Rookie of the Year, finished the game with 13 points.
A layup by Monmouth junior forward Abby Martin, who made the All-Tournament team, cut the Sacred Heart lead by two. But, Sacred Heart senior forward Callan Taylor connected on two free throws, giving the Pioneers another 18 point lead with 4:06 left in the half.
Taylor, like Campbell, was determined to end her voyage in red and white on a high note.
“I can’t really believe it,” said Taylor. “It is the best way to end your career. I can’t ask for a better way to leave Sacred Heart. We worked really hard and we deserved to win this tournament.”
For Taylor, that career has seen her become one of the best to ever don a Pioneer uniform, amassing a long list of accomplishments, including the 2012 NEC Player of the Year.
After Taylor’s second free throw, though, the Pioneers turned ice cold, going scoreless for the rest of the half and 0-14 from the field. During that stretch, Monmouth ripped off an 8-0 run, cutting Sacred Heart’s lead to 30-20 at the break.
The Pioneers started the second frame strong, notching the first five points, three coming from sophomore guard Ericka Norman.
Norman, who only logged six minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, finished the contest with a game high 18 points and six steals. The conference leader in assists – she is also 14th in the country – averaged seven per game in the tournament; as well as 4.3 steals, 10.3 points, and 4.3 rebounds.
“I felt my role on this team was to get assists,” said Norman, “but it wasn’t. I need to step up. I can’t wait for [Washington] or [Taylor] to score points and just get assists. I know I have the ability to drive and get points. I’ve held myself back before. Today, I felt like there was nothing to lose and I might as well leave it all out on the court.”
What Norman didn’t leave out on the court was the hardware she took home. In addition to being named to the All-Tournament team, Norman was named the tournament MVP.
Despite the effort of Norman, the Hawks would again fire off a run, this time a 17-2 run, ending with Monmouth tying the game at 37 midway through the second.
Like they’ve done countless times in the last four years, Sacred Heart called upon their best player to step up.
Washington hit Taylor with a pass in the left corner and Taylor let it rip. With all 6-3 of the defender in her face, Taylor nailed the triple, giving the Pioneers a 40-37 lead.
“I thought [Taylor] stepped up and hit a big three when we were tied,” said Swanson, the NEC Coach of the Year. “That loosens us up a little bit. After that you saw more of a hop in our step. A game like that is a game of momentum, and there are plays where you have to seize the moment. When [Taylor] hit that three, that was so big for us.”
Monmouth would not get closer than three the rest of the way, as the Pioneers extended their lead to 10 and posted a 58-48 victory.
“It was a total team effort today,” said Taylor. “Everyone stepped up. Everyone filled their roles offensively and defense was such a big key today.”
As time was running out, Norman grabbed the game’s final rebound and handed the ball to an eager Washington. The freshman launched the ball towards the rafters with 3.8 seconds remaining, prompting the officials to call a Sacred Heart turnover and delay the fast-approaching celebration.
“I was just so excited,” said Washington. “I didn’t know how many seconds were left. I just wanted to throw up the ball.”
However, Washington’s over anxiousness gave Swanson the chance to make two final substitutions. Acting quickly, Swanson removed Campbell and Taylor from the game. For the final time, the two seniors walked off the floor of the Pitt Center to a standing ovation from the Sacred Heart community and into the outstretched arms of their head coach.
“I couldn’t be happier for my three seniors,” said Swanson. “They are tremendous leaders.”
Although Kris Iovino, the team’s third senior, only logged two minutes in the tournament and 5.8 minutes per game in the regular season, her lead-by-example role is admired by her teammates. This was on display at center court when Washington handed her the championship trophy. Iovino, surrounded by her teammates, cradled it with both hands and triumphantly raised the golden basketball above her head as the confetti fell and the students rushed the court.
Those students contributed to the 1,344 in attendance, the third largest crowd in Sacred Heart women’s basketball history, who made their presence felt.
“The whole playoff atmosphere was great,” said Swanson. “Last Saturday [against Fairleigh Dickinson], I thought the fans propelled us to that victory, the same with Tuesday’s victory over Robert Morris. We have exceptional spirit groups. The band, Dance Team, and cheerleaders did an exceptional job; not just during the tournament, but all year. It was nice to see that the place was full and lively. We feed off of their energy.”
The team echoed their coach’s sentiments.
“It was just an exciting atmosphere,” said Taylor. “I forgot just how exciting it is. It was a great showing and a great feeling to have that support.”