STOP #7: William H. Pitt Center, Fairfield, CT
Saturday, February 23, 2013 – 1pm
QUINNIPIAC BOBCATS 67 (24-2, 15-0), SHU PIONEERS 62 (18-8, 10-4)
It was legendary sportscaster Bob Costas who once claimed that “sports broadcasters don’t root for teams, they root for only two things - the travel arrangements that are the most convenient to them and great stories to tell.” While in the case of Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac the travel arrangements don’t necessarily apply, as the two schools are separated by only 23 miles of Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, there was certainly a great story being played out when these two teams collided on Saturday afternoon.
Ever since falling short in last year’s NEC Tournament semi-finals, the Quinnipiac Bobcats have been a team on a mission. The goal has been March 17th, not just St. Patrick’s Day, but more importantly, the date of the 2013 NEC Championship Game. The Bobcats have had their sights set on that day and that game since last season’s heartbreaking conclusion. The first step in reaching that goal, clinching a playoff spot, was already taken care of. The next step in that journey, clinching the regular season championship for just the second time in school history, was within reach - just one win away. In addition to the regular season crown, the Bobcats, unbeaten against conference foes for the last 351 days, could improve to a perfect 15-0 against the NEC. Only five other teams in NEC history had completed a season undefeated in conference play, and a win over their rivals from Fairfield would put QU within three games of joining that elite company.
On the other side was a Sacred Heart team who, despite their worst four game start since joining the NEC (1-3, including a 29 point loss at Quinnipiac in mid-January), was looking to serve a reminder that they are indeed the reigning league champions. The Pioneers had battled back from the early season hole and had come in winners of their last nine straight contests, jumping right back into the regular season title race themselves. With a chance to make a statement, hand their rivals their first NEC loss, and improve their own playoff situation, the opportunity was as sweet as it could get for Sacred Heart.
So as both teams took to the Pitt Center court on Saturday afternoon, the storylines were certainly there, and both teams came out with an intensity that matched the level of drama. Among the things that stood out from when these two teams met back in January was that QU forced the Pioneers into too many turnovers, and SHU shot the ball not particularly well. In fact, the Bobcats held Sacred Heart to their lowest scoring output of the season to that point, and held their leading scorer, Gabby Washington, to just two points on 1 for 14 shooting. On this day, the tide would be turned, as it was Quinnipiac who uncharacteristically turned the ball over four times in the game’s first 100 seconds.
The Pioneers would throw everything they had at the unbeaten Bobcats in the game’s first 20 minutes. In comparing the first half from this game to the game back in January, on this day the Pioneers were shooting 6% better from the floor, had nine less turnovers, and most importantly were winning by two, 33-31, whereas in January SHU trailed by 14 at intermission. In the first half from January, SHU also had a long six minute stretch without a field goal to close out the first half. On this day, SHU outscored QU 14-8 over the final seven minutes of the stanza to hold the lead. The Pioneers had done an exceptional job with their ball control and were holding their own on the defense end.
During their nine game win streak, Sacred Heart forced an average of 22.2 turnovers per game, and they had either won outright or tied the turnover battle in all nine games. However, it still stood as a surprise that SHU was winning the turnover battle at the break on this day, 11-6, because their opponents only sported the second best turnover margin in the entire nation at +7.96.
For the second half, I was eager to see how the Bobcats would respond. Yes, they have overcome second half deficits before and had gone on to cruise to victory by double figures, but now the stakes were much greater. For a team who has made their season goals crystal clear, the Bobcats had an obstacle in their way of accomplishing one of those goals, and the question was really ‘how bad do they want it?’ Well, we got the answer. QU came out of their locker room very determined, yet calm, making the proper adjustments. They cleaned up their possessions, got to their spots on defense, forced turnovers which led to a very effective transition game, maintained fresh legs due to their rotation, and made all the key plays in the end when it counted.
The game featured nine ties and an amazing 15 lead changes, living up to the hype of a conference-championship deciding game. The key sequence was a 46 second span in the middle of the second half when the two teams traded the lead back and forth four times. After Gabby Washington made a layup to put the Pioneers in front, 50-49, Jasmine Martin answered with a jumper at the other end, just mere seconds later, to give the lead back to the Bobcats, 51-50. QU would not trail again. While the Bobcats would stretch their lead to as many as eight points, at 59-51, the Pioneers would not go away. Down eight with four minutes to go, SHU came up with a steal, leading to a Blair Koniszewski three that cut the deficit down to five.
Sacred Heart would get to within three, 63-60, with just 37 seconds to spare, however Quinnipiac easily broke the pressure defense and found Brittany McQuain open under the basket for the dagger, an easy layup that would put the game out of reach. Quinnipiac had not played a conference game all year decided by fewer than three possessions until this one. Despite the tremendous challenge given by the reigning champions, the Bobcats managed to overcome SHU and hold on for a 67-62 win. As the final buzzer sounded, the on court championship clinching celebration for the Bobcats consisted of nothing more than smiles, high fives, and the traditional handshake line with their opponents. The business-like celebration perhaps showcased that Tricia Fabbri’s team is well aware that there are much bigger celebrations that can be achieved down the road.
Bobcat sophomore Jasmine Martin had an amazing shooting day. She made three three’s in the first half, en route to scoring 15 of her team high 22 points in the first 20 minutes. Brittany McQuain fell a rebound shy of a double-double with 16 points and 9 rebounds, while point guard Boo Abshire filled up the stat sheet with 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. The Bobcats “Gold Rush” bench, who had actually outscored the starters in the prior game against Monmouth, only tallied 10 points, but still outscored the SHU bench 10-8. For Sacred Heart, Gabby Washington, who was held to 2 points against Quinnipiac back in January, finished with 22 to lead her team. Enjoli Bland, matched up against Camryn Warner and McQuain inside for much of the afternoon, held her own on the boards, bringing down 11 rebounds to go with nine points.
With the win, the Quinnipiac Bobcats improve to 24-2 and 15-0 in NEC play, wrapping up their second regular season title in program history (with the first coming back in 2008). Their 16 game overall win streak now stands as one of the top five longest active win streaks in the entire nation. Next up for QU is the opportunity to become just the sixth team to navigate their way through the NEC WBB regular season undefeated, should they win their final three games against Bryant, at LIU Brooklyn, and at St. Francis Brooklyn.
For Sacred Heart, despite the loss, they officially clinched a playoff spot following FDU’s overtime win against Robert Morris later in the afternoon. While the top spot is now out of reach, the Pioneers will look to regroup by clinching the two seed with a win on Monday night against Central Connecticut State. Finishing second ensures that SHU would be able to host at least a quarterfinal, and (should they advance) a semifinal at the Pitt Center.
As mentioned in my game preview, Quinnipiac is in the playoffs for a 13th straight season, and now Sacred Heart is in for a 14th straight year. With QU leaving the NEC for the MAAC at the end of the year, it is possible that these two teams have just played their last game against each other for quite a while. However, it is also possible that these two teams are destined to match up once again in the NEC Tournament this year. It's tough to say for sure, as strange things tend to happen in March. While the Bobcats and Pioneers have established themselves as the top tier of the league, they will no doubt have a host of hungry challengers to get through, who will be ready and waiting to try and knock them off of that perch once the NEC Tournament commences.
CD POST GAME RECAP
1. Jasmine Martin, QU – 22 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, 3-5 3pt, 29 minutes
2. Gabrielle Washington, SHU – 22 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 38 minutes
3. Brittany McQuain, QU – 16 points, 9 rebounds, 31 minutes
With this being the final regular season home weekend for the Sacred Heart women’s basketball team, several celebrations took place at the William H. Pitt Center on Saturday afternoon. First, the Pioneers conducted their annual “Senior Day” festivities, honoring senior players Morgan Merriman and Kiley Evans. Evans is a 1,000 point scorer and Merriman is currently in the midst of the best season in her career, averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. In addition, it was also “Alumni Day,” as former students returned to campus to take in the SHU basketball doubleheader (the men played later that afternoon against CCSU). Finally, Sacred Heart hosted an important “Newtown Community Day” which included a pregame clinic and an autograph session with SHU players for members of the Newtown, CT community. A portion of the proceeds for the games went to the Newtown Scholarship Association’s Sandy Hook Elementary School Memorial Scholarship Fund. Prior to the game, both the Pioneers and the Bobcats wore special warm up shirts honoring Sandy Hook Elementary.
One of the largest home crowds of the season, an announced total of 1,183, was on hand to witness the Pioneer/Bobcat showdown. The commissioner of the Northeast Conference Noreen Morris was also on hand, sitting courtside with NEC Hall of Famer and retiring SHU athletic director, Don Cook. Despite the defeat, the Pioneers have still won 26 out of their last 29 contests at the Pitt Center and are closing in on securing home court advantage for at least the first two rounds, if they can lock up the two seed. The SHU ladies finish up their regular season home schedule on Monday night against Central Connecticut State.
AROUND THE NEC
CCSU 76, BRYANT 66 – The Blue Devils improved to 8-7 in conference play following a key victory over the Bryant Bulldogs. It was perhaps the best offensive outing of the season for CCSU, as they shot a season high 50.8% from the field and recorded an assist on 18 of their 30 field goals. CCSU scored 43 points in the first half, and would go on to lead by as many as 18 points in the second half. Blue Devil sophomore guard Kaley Watras led the team with a career high 26 points.
ST. FRANCIS 69, MONMOUTH 56 – On ‘Senior Day’ in Loretto, the Red Flash ended a three game skid with a 13 point victory over the Monmouth Hawks. Both teams are now even at 9-6, good for third place in the NEC standings. St. Francis also clinched the tiebreaker edge by virtue of sweeping the Hawks this season. Alli Williams recorded her 20th double-double of the year with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The SFU defense forced a season high 30 turnovers.
FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON 64, ROBERT MORRIS 62 (OT) – With FDU down by two in the final minute of regulation, Erika Livermore connected on an equalizing basket in the paint with 56 seconds to go, eventually sending the game into overtime, knotted up at 61. In the bonus session, points were at a premium. FDU scored on a free throw from Brianna Thomas and then converted two more from the charity stripe by Amanda Andrades to lead 64-61 with 1:36 left. In the final sequence, RMU would make one of two free throws cutting the deficit to two, before sending Andrades back to the line. After missing the front end of a one and one, RMU would have one last chance. FDU Sophomore Tiffany Grant would block the potential game tying shot by Randi Jackson as time expired to seal the win for the Knights. Livermore came off the bench to lead the Knights with a double-double, 23 points and 11 rebounds. Fairleigh Dickinson won at the Sewell Center for the first time since the 2002-03 season. FDU and RMU are now tied for ninth place, with the Knights holding the season series tiebreaker.
LIU BROOKLYN 61, WAGNER 41 – The LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds avenged an earlier loss this season to the Seahawks with a 20 point victory on Saturday in Staten Island. LIU was led by senior Tamika Guz, who put together a career high 21 point outing, while junior Cleandra Roberts added 18 points in the win.
MOUNT 49, ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN 48 – In a game that featured 16 lead changes, Mount St. Mary’s survived a frantic finish to record a 49-48 win. With Mount clinging to a one point lead, with the basketball, and 36 seconds left, SFC forced a turnover on the inbounds pass. Jessica Kaufman missed a contested jumper with 14 seconds remaining that would have put the Terriers back in front. After a Mount missed layup, the Terriers would have one last chance, but simply ran out of time. Kaufman brought down the rebound, but in the scramble to get the ball up the floor, the Terriers would only manage to get off a half court heave at the buzzer that fell well short of the target. The Mount’s Jacqueline Brewer had quite the evening. Brewer started things off by singing the national anthem, and then followed up by hitting five three pointers, for a team high 15 points.
March Madness gets into gear next weekend, as the 2013 Northeast Conference women’s basketball regular season schedule wraps up with playoff spots and playoff seeding still hanging in the balance. For our final week coverage, the NEC WBB Road Trip Blog will be making not just one, but two stops. First, on Saturday afternoon, we will be at a game site still TBD for our usual coverage. Then on Monday night, we will finish up the regular season in West Long Branch for the Monmouth/Mount game. All of the league tiebreaker information that you will need to know going into the finale will be posted here on the blog next Sunday afternoon in a handy-dandy, color coded chart. Plus we will have the first look, previewing the four NEC Tournament quarterfinal matchups, once they are set and announced next Monday night.