Sunday, February 17, 2013

STOP #6: SHU 59, RMU 52

STOP #6: William H. Pitt Center, Fairfield, CT
Saturday, February 17, 2013 - 1pm

SACRED HEART PIONEERS 59 (17-7, 9-3), RMU COLONIALS 52 (7-17, 6-7)


After a week in which winter storm Nemo wracked havoc on the Northeast Conference women’s basketball schedule, things returned to normal on Saturday with a full slate of action. The schedule was highlighted by a matchup in Fairfield, CT, featuring two of the perennially strong programs in the league, the Sacred Heart Pioneers and the Robert Morris Colonials. Finding a place in their respective trophy cases for championship hardware has been not been a problem for the Pioneers and Colonials, who have combined to win five out of the last seven NEC Tournament titles. Both teams have high aspirations of returning to the top again this year, but didn’t exactly get off to the best of head starts. SHU began the year 1-3 in conference play before rolling off a seven game win streak to rise up to second place in the standings. RMU had to endure early injuries and a brutal non-conference schedule before rallying to get back even in conference play at 6-6, and right back in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Once the ball was tipped, Robert Morris appeared to be out of sync in the early going, committing turnovers on their first three possessions. In fact, in the game’s first four minutes the Colonials already had turned the ball over six times. With the game tied at six, the Pioneers went off on a 10-2 run, led by back to back threes, from Blair Koniszewski and Katie Shepard, to take a 16-8 advantage.

RMU would then respond with a 9-2 run of their own, taking the lead for the first time, 19-18, on an Anna Gailite jumper with 4:22 left to play in the half. The Colonials would go on to lead at the break, 25-23, forcing the Pioneers to have to do something they had only done once all season, and that was come back to win a game after trailing at halftime. SHU was 1-4 when trailing at the break, ironically, that one victory came back on January 21st, at Robert Morris. The Colonials led by ten at halftime on that afternoon, but the Pioneers would storm back for the win, one of the signature wins that sparked their current winning streak.

The Pioneers, who are not one of the better shooting teams in the NEC (only ranking seventh in field goal percentage), shot 30% from the floor in the first half, but did manage to take advantage of the Colonial miscues. Sacred Heart would go on to pour in 14 points off of 17 first half Robert Morris turnovers.

In the second half, the Pioneers would prove to just have too much firepower for RMU to handle. Sacred Heart, the number one scoring defense in the NEC and the team that fields the conference’s top theft artist on its roster, played a stellar defensive game. On two particular instances in the second half, SHU was able to force some incredible turnovers. First, three minutes into the second half with RMU holding a one point lead, Artemis Spanou pulled down a routine rebound. The nation’s leading rebounder bear hugged the ball and looked up to see who to throw the outlet pass to, up the court. However, never giving up on the play, Gabby Washington came unnoticed from behind, pickpocketed the ball, then drove to the basket, drawing a foul. Washington would make both free throws to give SHU back the lead.

Later on, at the midway point of the second half, Spanou was on offense, aggressively backing her way to the basket from the left side. Ericka Norman came from behind and reached her arm in, trying to take the ball away as both Norman and Spanou hit the floor. On the way down, Norman must have gotten hit in the eye, however she stayed with the play, with her arm on the ball, and forced a tie-up the resulted in a Sacred Heart possession via the possession arrow. It was a combination of those kinds of defensive plays, making the big shots when they needed to at the end, and converting from the free throw line that would lead the Pioneers toward the finish line on the afternoon. Sacred Heart shot 45.8% from the floor in the second half, forced 12 turnovers while only committing four, and converted 14 of 16 attempts from the charity stripe. The Colonials, who played with a short bench and only saw seven players take the court, had no answer. With SHU up five in the final 38 seconds, Washington delivered the dagger. On a one on one transition opportunity against Gailite, Washington drove to the basket, absorbed a foul, and converted the layup. Although she would miss the ensuing free throw, the final blow was delivered, as the Pioneers extended their winning streak to eight, 59-52.

Gabby Washington, who ranks fourth in the conference in points per game, led the Pioneers with 19 points and an incredible six steals. Also impressive, was the play of point guard Ericka Norman. The junior from Chino Hills, CA controlled the game beautifully, adding 8 points and 7 assists. Both players were a major part of the defensive effort that forced 29 RMU turnovers, leading to 25 points off turnovers.

Artemis Spanou, the nation’s leading rebounder and the NEC’s leading scorer, recorded her 19th straight double-double and 21st double-double of the season, with a game high 20 points and 13 rebounds. However, RMU was hampered by her nine turnovers. As mentioned, she had the ball taken from behind on a couple of crucial second half possessions, and committed several traveling violations, an Achilles heel to her game that has been present since she was a freshman.  Spanou will go into her next game on Monday afternoon against Quinnipiac just nine rebounds shy of joining Elise James as the only two players in Colonial history with 1,000 career points and rebounds.

Sacred Heart won their sixth straight game against the Colonials, and their eighth straight game overall this season. They will look to keep things rolling on Monday night against the St. Francis Red Flash. SHU leads Monmouth by one game for second place in the conference standings, plus the Pioneers hold the head to head tiebreaker edge. They are also two games ahead of the Flash, having handed SFU their first conference loss of the season back in Loretto on January 19th. Robert Morris will look to rebound when they visit the unbeaten Bobcats on a President’s Day matinee on Monday afternoon. At the moment, the Colonials stand alone, in sole possession of seventh place. If RMU is going to qualify for the NEC postseason for a ninth straight March, it is certainly going to be a fight to the finish with every game down the stretch a “must win” and holding the utmost importance.
Box Score
1. Gabby Washington, SHU – 19 points, 5 rebounds, 6 steals, 9-10 FT, 36 minutes
2. Ericka Norman, SHU – 8 points, 3 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 30 minutes
3. Morgan Merriman, SHU – 11 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, block, 38 minutes
The Pioneers celebrated “Think Pink Day” at the William H. Pitt Center, raising awareness for breast cancer research. Both teams wore pink warm-up shirts and pink shoe laces, and even the referees got into the fun, sporting pink whistles. Also, Sacred Heart celebrated their back to back NEC Championship baseball team, as Nick Giaquinto’s squad received their championship rings during a halftime ceremony. SHU was selected fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll and will begin their 2013 campaign on March 1st at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Saturday’s game was the second of a five game homestand for the Pioneers. SHU has fared very well on their home court over the last two seasons, winning 25 out of their last 27 outings, the best home record in Northeast Conference women’s basketball during that span. Sacred Heart will host St. Francis on Monday, and Quinnipiac and Central next weekend to round out their regular season home slate. The team finishes the regular year with three straight road games. SHU will then hope to earn a playoff seed high enough to ensure returning to the friendly confines of the Pitt Center for some postseason contests.
QUINNIPIAC 61, ST. FRANCIS 50 – The Bobcats clinched their 13th straight NEC playoff berth and improved to a perfect 12-0 in conference play, with a come from behind victory over SFU. The Flash led by as many as 10 points, and held a 41-35 lead with just under 11 minutes to go. But the Bobcats would execute a 15-0 run over the course of the next five minutes to pull away for the win. Felicia Barron led all scorers with 18 points, Jasmine Martin added 17, and Brittany McQuain recorded a double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds. QU swept the Red Flash for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
MONMOUTH 51, ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN 47 – On “Play 4 Kay Day” at the MAC, the Hawks raised money for breast cancer awareness and celebrated a crucial win over the Terriers. The game would be a tight battle all the way through, featuring five ties and nine lead changes. Chevy Paalvast led the Hawks with 14 points and Jessica Kaufman would lead all scorers with 18 points for the Terriers. 
MOUNT 50, CCSU 48 – The Mount managed to survive a late Blue Devil charge and hold on for a 50-48 victory on Saturday afternoon. Mount seemingly controlled the game, up 50-32 with 7:26 remaining in regulation. However, CCSU would go on a 15-0 run, getting to within 50-48 on a Jessica Babe basket with 31 seconds left. After Selina Mann missed a free throw, Central would have a chance to tie, but Jaclyn Babe’s jumper at the buzzer missed the mark. During the game, the Mountaineers honored 2013 NEC Hall of Fame inductee, Vanessa Blair.
BRYANT 71, WAGNER 53 – After starting the 2013 conference season 0-5, the Bulldogs continued to dig themselves out of that early hole and make a push toward the postseason with a 71-53 victory over Wagner. Bryant has won five out of their last seven games. Naana Ankoma-Mensa picked up her 14th double-double of the season, recording 12 points and 15 rebounds. Ankoma-Mensa was joined in double figures scoring by four other teammates, Katie Whittington with 12, Danielle Douglas with 11, and Courtney Schissler and Breanna Rucker who netted 10 points apiece.
FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON 64, LIU BROOKLYN 63 – In a thrilling finish, the FDU Knights ended a three game slide with a 64-63 win in Brooklyn over the Blackbirds. With LIU up by two, they were forced into a shot clock violation turnover with 29.8 seconds remaining. FDU then put the ball in the hands of Ericka Livermore, who drove to the basket and scored the tying layup in the process of getting fouled. Livermore would convert the three point play from the free throw line to give the Knights a one point edge with seven seconds to spare. With just one second showing on the clock, Amanda Andrades was called for a foul, but LIU’s Kelly Robinson would miss the front end of a one-and-one to allow Fairleigh Dickinson to come away with the win. Livermore led all scorers with 29 points.
Next Saturday the NEC Women’s Basketball Road Trip returns to the Pitt Center for a crucial, late season showdown between the top two teams in the NEC, the Quinnipiac Bobcats and Sacred Heart Pioneers. Earlier this season we were at the TD Bank Center in Hamden, CT for a Road Trip Blog visit when the Bobcats came away with a 74-45 victory over their rivals from down the Merritt. Since then, QU has maintained their unblemished conference record, continuing their march towards history and solidifying their status amongst some of the greatest NEC women’s basketball teams of all time. Not to be overlooked, the Pioneers have found a bunch of momentum as well, perhaps regaining some of their championship spark from a year ago. SHU has won eight straight, and have taken over sole possession of second place in the conference standings. The eight game winning streak is their longest since they became the last team to finish with a perfect 18-0 NEC regular season record back in 2009. If both teams continue their streaks into Saturday afternoon, the Bobcats would be playing to clinch their second regular season title in program history.
In addition to the top two teams meeting head to head next Saturday, the third and fourth best teams in the NEC standings will face off as well. The Monmouth Hawks will travel out to Loretto, PA to visit the St. Francis Red Flash, in a rematch of a game from January 14th that the Flash won 63-49. The Hawks, a veteran team who have fallen in the NEC Championship Game each of the last two seasons, are starting to play exceptionally well at exactly the right time, winning four out of their last five games and their last three straight. The Red Flash will be looking forward to finally getting a chance to take their home court again, as SFU has only played one home game in the month of February so far. The Flash are 2-3 this month overall, with just a 1-3 record away from home.
Spots five through 10 in the NEC standings include six teams separated by just two games. As the NEC schedule would have it, the six teams occupying those spots will be paired up against each other next week. Next Saturday afternoon it will be the Bryant Bulldogs hosting the CCSU Blue Devils, Robert Morris will take on Fairleigh Dickinson, and Mount St. Mary’s will welcome in St. Francis Brooklyn. Every one of the remaining games over the last two weeks of the season will be crucial as only the top eight make the conference tournament.

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