A repeat trip to the Big Dance was abruptly cancelled for the Sacred Heart University women’s basketball team Wednesday night, as they were overwhelmed by Saint Francis University (Pa.), 83-67.
“We were just totally outplayed, outcoached and out-prepared right from the opening tip,” said Sacred Heart Pioneers head coach Ed Swanson, the New England Basketball Hall of Famer who is tied for the most NEC Tournament wins in conference history with 16. “Kudos to Saint Francis, I thought they played a terrific game. They played with high energy [and] high emotion and we didn’t match that, and that’s my fault. They just outworked and outplayed us.”
On a day where Sacred Heart never led, the Saint Francis Red Flash jumped out to a quick 8-1 lead, in a little over a minute, and never looked back.
“We came out with an intensity right from the jump,” said Saint Francis head coach Joe Haigh, in his first season as head coach and fifth with the program. “They came out today and decided we weren’t going to lose the game.”
Spurred by junior forward Alli Williams and her 17 first half points, the Red Flash were able to push their lead to 20, 29-9, midway through the opening frame.
Williams, an All-NEC First Team and an All-Mid Major selection, terrorized the home team in front of 632 at the Pitt Center.
In a quest to deliver Saint Francis its 12th NEC title; Williams filled the stat sheet with 24 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and four assists.
“It was do or die,” said Williams, who ranks in the top two of the NEC in scoring and steals. “We needed to win, it was the only option. We came out strong and we never looked back.”
Sacred Heart looked poised to make a run, cutting the deficit to 16 twice, but Saint Francis freshman guard Aisha Brock hit the shot that summarized the evening – an ugly bank-job three as time expired – to give her squad a 46-26 halftime advantage.
“We dug the hole for ourselves,” said Sacred Heart junior point guard Ericka Norman. “We have to pay the price and learn that we can’t get tired and just dig in. We can’t trade baskets with them and we did. Every time we scored, we came back, they were just ready and they hit big shots.”
Norman, last year’s NEC Tournament MVP and an All-NEC Third Team pick this year, struggled Wednesday with Saint Francis’ game plan execution, turning the ball over six times in 27 minutes.
After Norman quarterbacked Sacred Heart to two blowout wins against the Red Flash already this season, Haigh and his staff prepared a simple game plan: disrupt the point guard who ranks fourth in the nation in assists.
“We did have a different game plan coming into this game,” said Haigh. “[We] did a great job defensively at the front of our press trying to limit touches to Norman. Sacred Heart’s been a great consistent team all year and we know Norman’s one of the best point guards in the league.”
That Saint Francis defense forced 23 Pioneer turnovers that resulted in 21 points. They also held Sacred Heart to 32.1 percent shooting, while they shot 39.1 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from beyond the arc.
“We knew their game plan to come and stop me and get the ball out of my hand,” said Norman. “They succeeded in that. As a junior, I need to learn that I can’t let them stop me and get the ball out of my hand. I have to learn that I have to make one sharp cut and I need to get myself open. I think I just need to put my big girl pants on.”
The Red Flash would extend the lead to 23 – the largest of the game – early in the second half, but Sacred Heart refused to relinquish their NEC crown without a fight.
The Pioneers closed the gap by three over the next five minutes and, with 12:49 remaining, launched into a 9-0 run, ignited by sophomore guard Gabby Washington’s jumper, that would leave them down 11, 58-47.
“We’re just thinking, ‘OK, let’s pick it up, we can change the tide,’” said Washington. “They attacked it, they came out with more energy, we came out flat, complacent. They came out ready to play and they had something to prove. They outplayed us.”
Although Washington led Sacred Heart with 16 points, the All-NEC Second Team member and 38.9 percent career shooter shot a dismal 17.6 percent (3-17) from the field, including a 0-9 first half.
“We defended great,” said Haigh. “Washington had to work a little harder on the perimeter [and] we did a great job of executing our defensive game plan off the ball.”
After exchanging blows, the Pioneers found another spurt, as Norman and Washington would each tally two points and cut the lead to 10, 63-53, with 5:39 left.
“I thought we used so much energy trying to come back,” admitted Swanson. “And, give Saint Francis credit, every time we made a little run, they had an answer. They came in here, it’s a tough place to play, and they took it to us. All the credit to them.”
10 would be as close as Sacred Heart would come, however, as they were outscored 20-14 the rest of the way.
If the first half was the Alli Williams show, then the second certainly belonged to Red Flash freshman Rebecca Sparks, who dominated the final 20 minutes with 16 points, en route to a career and game-high 27 points.
“We had practice yesterday, came back for a shoot around last night and had shoot around this morning,” said Williams. “It was good to get a lot of shots up in an unfamiliar gym and we all felt confident. I don’t know what happened to Sparks tonight. I never knew she was a shooter, but we’ll go with it.”
Sparks, the 5-4 guard from Teaneck, N.J. who had never scored in double figures until Mar. 4, was red hot on a day where Francis seemed to be the operative name.
Sparks was 7-15 from the field, including 5-7 from three, and 8-8 from the foul line. She also chipped in three steals, two assists and two boards in just 28 minutes. She eclipsed her career-highs in field goals made and attempted, threes made and attempted and free throws made and attempted.
“When I came into the game,” said Sparks, “I was nervous; so, so nervous. But, then, after a while, I put all my effort and heart into it. If I score once, then it’s on for the rest of the game. I’m not going to stop. I just played, had fun.”
The loss drops Sacred Heart’s NEC Tournament record to 16-11 overall and 13-4 at the Pitt Center, making the Pioneers wait for their fourth NEC Championship since joining the conference in 1999.
“I’m not shocked and that’s the disappointing thing,” said Swanson. “We just lacked some of the things a championship team needs. One time it was leadership, the next time it might have been toughness; it was a whole bunch of different things throughout the year. I thought we played hard, I thought we improved, I just don’t think I ever felt in my gut that we had that chance. But, I thought we had a terrific year.”
Sacred Heart will most likely get a bid to one of the postseason tournaments.