Friday, March 15, 2013

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Sunday, March 17, 2013


On Sunday afternoon in Hamden, CT the top seeded Quinnipiac Bobcats will host the Saint Francis Red Flash in a game to decide the 2013 NEC Women’s Basketball championship and the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. This year’s final has no shortage of intriguing storylines, so I thought it would be a great idea to devote an entire article to them. So as the annual conference title tilt draws near, here are (in no particular order) my 10 top storylines for Championship Sunday in the Northeast Conference…

1. Last Chance to Dance in the NEC

On Sunday the Quinnipiac Bobcats will play their 295th conference game (regular season and playoffs combined) since joining the Northeast Conference in the 1998-99 season. Their 295th conference game will also be their last, as Quinnipiac University announced back in the fall that they will be leaving the NEC starting in July. In 15 seasons with the conference, the Bobcats have recorded a 184-110 record against league foes, have had numerous all-conference performers and individual award winners on their roster, and have collected a pair of regular season titles. The one thing that has always eluded them has been the tournament championship and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it. While the Bobcats should still be an annual contender in their new league, they will only get one more shot to complete a 15 year goal…win the Northeast Conference. The fact and the finality that there is no ‘next year’ for the Bobcats in the NEC, either way, looms large over this game. Should they win, it would be a perfect storybook ending to their program’s NEC chapter: for a team to be chasing a single goal for a decade and a half, only to put together one of the most special, complete teams in league annals, and finally grab the glory at the end. They would be able to ride off into the sunset (or in this case, their new league), never having to defend their title, forever as champions. However if they don’t win, unlike the other Bobcat tournament letdowns from years past (which we’ll get to), there will be no going back, no second chances, and no opportunity to come back next year and try again. It will truly be ‘now or never’ for the Bobcats when they take the floor on Sunday.

2. Mystique & Aura Appearing Nightly in Loretto

Standing in the Bobcats way will the team with the most impressive postseason resume in the Northeast Conference, the Saint Francis Red Flash. The program is so rich in history and tradition, with a fantastic fan base that has come to expect championship trophies on an annual basis. Some of the numbers that the Red Flash have compiled over the years in the NEC Tournament are unbelievable. Consider the following:

*SFU has won a record 11 tournament titles, the other 11 NEC teams have combined to win 15. The next closest individual team is Robert Morris who has won 4 titles.

*The program will be playing in their 15th championship game, and fourth in five years

*At the championship game stage, the Red Flash are 11-3, having lost only three times: in their first two appearances in 1994 and 1995, and to the Sacred Heart Pioneers in 2009

*The Red Flash have been to two of the last three and 11 of the last 17 NCAA Tournaments

*Saint Francis’ all time playoff record is 41-7, SFU has won 37 of their last 39 tournament games

*From 1996 to 2009 the Red Flash appeared in 10 of the 14 tournaments without losing a game until the 2009 final to Sacred Heart

*Saint Francis still has six players on their roster from the 2011 championship team. Since the NEC started awarding an automatic NCAA tournament berth to their league champion in 1994, the Red Flash have not had a class come in that has not appeared in at least one NEC Championship Game during a four year career with the team. Since 1994, they have only had one class that never went to the NCAA Tournament.

3. Welcome to Perfectville: Population 4 - Soon to Be 5?

The Quinnipiac Bobcats will be playing for history on Sunday, looking to become just the fifth team in league history to run the table through the conference’s regular season and then go on to win the tournament title. QU went a perfect 18-0 during the regular season and is 2-0 so far in the postseason vs. the NEC. They are winning conference games by an average margin of victory of about 17 points, and only had one conference game be decided by less than three possessions. Quinnipiac can join the 1987 Monmouth Hawks, the 1994 Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers, the 2004 St. Francis Red Flash, and the 2009 Sacred Heart Pioneers as those who have completed the ‘perfect’ NEC season. In 1988, the Monmouth Hawks went unbeaten during the regular season, only to lose the championship game, at home, to Robert Morris.

4. So Close, But Yet So Far

Tricia Fabbri has had some fantastic teams over the years at Quinnipiac, and has had some incredible players (such as Erin Kerner, Monique Lee, Brianna Rooney, and Ashlee Kelly) come through the program as well. However, as I referenced during my semifinal broadcast on Wednesday night, strange things have happened to Quinnipiac when these great players and teams get to the NEC Tournament. Historically they have run into a bunch of bad breaks over the years that had limited them to just one championship game appearance prior to this season:

2001 – 16 win season, 2nd place finish – lost in OT to LIU 80-74 in the semis…Quinnipiac blew a 16 point first half lead. Ashlee Kelly went down with an elbow injury late in regulation and did not return. The Blackbirds would go on to win the NEC Championship.

2003 – 18 win season, 2nd place finish – lost to UMBC 66-47 in the quarters…The only instance where a seven seed upset a two seed in NEC Tournament history. Again, QU opened up an early lead, and led at halftime, but was outscored 40-20 in the second half.

2004 – 18 win season, 3rd place finish – lost to SFU 69-62 in the semis…This ‘bad break’ was really no fault of their own, is was just that QU had the misfortune of running into one of the best teams in NEC history in the semifinals, the undefeated, in conference, Red Flash. In one of the tournament’s most memorable head-to-head battles, QU’s Ashlee Kelly (20 points and 26 rebounds) actually outdueled SFU’s Beth Swink (22 points, 7 rebounds), but Tonjee Ward was the difference maker for SFU in the win.

2006 – 22 win season, 2nd place finish – lost to SHU 69-65 in the final…According to legend, Quinnipiac (in their lone championship game appearance) made a comment in the newspaper the morning of the game saying that they couldn’t wait to cut down SHU’s nets. Pioneer head coach Ed Swanson brought that quote to his team’s attention prior to the game. NEC Player of the Year Amanda Pape was so fired up, according to her coach, “You couldn’t believe the things that came out of Amanda’s mouth…After she addressed the team, I walked away knowing that we were going to win.” Pape recorded 25 points, 14 rebounds, and took home Tournament MVP honors in the Pioneer four point win over the Bobcats.

2007 – 16 win season, 4th place finish – lost to MU 63-58 in the quarters…Down 61-58 with 5.8 seconds left MU’s Jennifer Bender missed a free throw, but would get her own offensive rebound to deny Quinnipiac a chance to tie the game. Bender would get fouled and sink two more free throws to seal the win. This was the first playoff game at the TD Bank Sports Center.

2008 – 25 win season, 1st place finish – lost to LIU 67-63 in the semis…This was perhaps the most unfair break of them all, as the Bobcats won 25 games and the regular season title, but instead of home court advantage, they were forced to play LIU at a ‘natural site’ (which in this year just so happened to be the Blackbirds own home gym in Brooklyn). Erin Kerner’s amazing 37 point game would go for naught, as the Bobcats would fall just short and be forced to settle for the WNIT.

2009 – 18 win season, 4th place finish – lost to MU 69-67 in the quarters…Looking to drive to the basket and tie the game in the final seconds, QU’s all-time leading D1 scorer, Erin Kerner, had the ball stolen away from her grasp as time expired.  

2011 – 14 win season, 7th place finish – lost to MU 55-36 in the quarters…In an absolutely tragic situation that was far more serious than any type of game that would be played, Bobcat senior Courtney Kaminski’s father passed away the day before the game in a car accident. Kaminiski would return home to be with her family. The game would proceed as scheduled, with an obviously heavy-hearted Bobcats squad setting an all-time tournament low with just 36 points.

2012 – 22 win season, 2nd place finish – lost to MU 69-66 in the semis…Quinnipiac uncharacteristically turned the ball over 14 times in the first half leading to an early MU edge. The Bobcats managed to fight back and take the lead 60-56  with five minutes to go, but Monmouth used an 8-0 run to go up for good. Felicia Barron missed a three at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime.

5. MVP Debate

Robert Morris’ Artemis Spanou took home the 2013 NEC Player of the Year award, as voted by the league’s coaches. Spanou led the conference in minutes and points, while leading the entire country in rebounding and double-doubles. No doubt she had a spectacular season and is a fantastic player. However with the Colonials failing to make the playoffs (becoming the first league MVP to not play in that year’s postseason) her status as ‘valuable’ could be argued, especially by both Quinnipiac and Saint Francis.

You would think that if Spanou wasn’t on Robert Morris this year, her team still wouldn’t have made the playoffs, so despite her numbers and her leading national categories, exactly how much ‘value’ did she really add? Quinnipiac’s Felicia Barron certainly had a case for Player of the Year, as since 2009 it’s been basically a ‘Best Player on the Best Team’ award. Some will say that she sacrificed minutes and stats for the team concept of playing everybody. But there is something definitely impressive about for putting up the numbers that she has, being a factor on both sides of the floor, and doing it all in 10 less minutes than all the other potential candidates.

In the interest of full disclosure, my Player of the Year was Alli Williams. First, if you take Barron off of QU they still have a pretty great team, but if you take Williams off of this SFU team right now, they are probably not anywhere close to the final. Second, she can beat you in so many different ways. If you try and double her inside she can find the open teammate (she averages 2.4 assists per game), or even come outside the paint and knock down a three of her own (she’s a 35.5% three point shooter). She can dominate inside, averaging a double-double on the season (17.7 points and 10.8 rebounds), and is a force on the defensive end (finishing second in the NEC with 116 steals). In two tournament games so far, Williams is averaging 21.5 points and 11 rebounds. Having pretty much already sewed up a spot on the all-tournament team, should the Red Flash win the title on Sunday, Alli Williams may very well find that she made up for the Player of the Year snub by walking away with NEC Tournament MVP honors.

6. Meet the New Boss

After serving four years as an assistant at Saint Francis under Susan Robinson Fruchtl, Joe Haigh was named the program’s seventh head coach (and first male head coach) back in April when Fruchtl left for Providence. Haigh could become the first rookie head coach to cut down the nets since SFU’s Jill Poe in 2004. Haigh is the third Red Flash head coach to lead the program to the finals in their first season, joining Poe and Myndi Hill.

7. Big Weekend Ahead

The women’s basketball program is only part of a huge weekend for the Quinnipiac community. The #1 ranked men’s hockey team will host Cornell in an ECAC best two-out-of-three playoff series at the TD Bank Sports Center from Friday through Sunday. If there is a game three, it would be played at 7:30 on Sunday, about a half hour after the women’s final ends. In addition, Coach Fabbri’s daughter Carly is a junior guard on the Laurelton Hall girls’ basketball team in Connecticut. The Crusaders are the #2 seed the in Class LL state tournament and will play their championship game on Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun against #1 Mercy. Mercy handed Laurelton Hall their only loss of the season. Carly had been the Bobcats ‘hydration specialist’ since she was 7 years old, and now she will have the opportunity to be the first of the possible two Fabbri women to win championships this weekend.

8. Lighting up the Scoreboard

Sunday’s championship game features the top two scoring offenses in the Northeast Conference. The Quinnipiac Bobcats pace the league, scoring an average of 71.1 points per night, while the Saint Francis Red Flash bring in 65.9 points per game. The key will lie in the defenses. The Bobcats pressure the basketball better than any team in the NEC. Their turnover margin is second best in the nation and they are top ten in the country in steals. In their two regular season meetings QU forced 31 turnovers in Loretto and 18 turnovers in the rematch in Hamden. Saint Francis has been known to light up the scoreboard, but their attack has been inconsistent. In a home game in early February they scored 83 points, shooting nearly 40% and dropping in 10 threes for the game. The next time out they were held to 53 points, shooting 3 for 23 from three, in a loss to rival Robert Morris. It started a three game skid where the Flash didn’t record more than 56 points.

On February 25th, Saint Francis reached the century mark against FDU, with Kelly Doogan lighting things up from downtown, finishing with 35 points and eight three pointers. That outing was followed up by an ugly 79-54 loss at Bryant where the team only recorded 15 first half points and shot just 28% for the game. SFU will enter Sunday’s final coming off another strong showing: 83 points against Sacred Heart, the top scoring defense in the NEC. The question is can they build off of their semifinal showing or will they once again struggle coming off of a strong offensive night? The Quinnipiac defense will certainly attempt to do their part in creating some struggles for SFU as the Bobcats sport the second best scoring defense and the top field goal percentage defense in the NEC.

9. All the Pieces to the Puzzle

With all due respect to all of the other teams that have competed in the last 26 years of NEC Women’s Basketball, this year’s Quinnipiac group may be the most complete team ever assembled. They have it all. You need a smart, sure-handed point guard who can run the show and distribute the ball? Check…they have one of those in Boo Abshire with the sixth best assist to turnover ratio in America. They even have a senior veteran understudy in Lisa Lebak, who can come in and keep the ball rolling without the team missing a beat. You need a pure scorer? Check…she’s only a sophomore, but Jasmine Martin has developed into the ‘big shot’ player for QU. In the two games where QU has had the most on the line this year, she has stepped up, put the team on her shoulders, and carried them to victory. How about a three point threat? Check…they have several of players who can make a big trifecta, including Ellen Cannon who is among the tops in the league in three point field goal percentage. Interior presence? Check…Camryn Warner and Brittany McQuain both can take it to the basket, but also step back and hit the occasional midrange jumper. On the opposite end, both are factors on defense, Warner, with her long reach, can redirect and block opponent’s shots and McQuain is a force on the boards. How about their defense? Check…their pressure is second to none, and Felicia Barron is one of the best around. She can come from behind to pick the ball free or step in the way of a passing lane leading to a transition opportunity down the court. Barron was honored as the Defensive Player of the Year for a second straight season. Depth? Check…they play everybody, and everybody contributes. Their second group of five players, nicknamed the “Gold Rush” line, could compete with many of the other NEC teams starting five players. Also, they have just gotten Sam Guastella back from an injury that forced her to miss 12 league games. Just getting back into her rhythm, Guastella adds energy and can make all of the big ‘hustle plays’ needed to win games. Coaching?...they have one of the best. Tricia Fabbri is in her 18th season and was honored by the NEC as the 2013 recipient of the Brenda Reilly Coach of the Year.

This is a selfless, complete team that will have a once in a lifetime opportunity on Sunday. No matter what, whenever it is that this season comes to an end, this team will never quite be the same like this again. Players will leave, leagues will change, and even though they will still be extremely competitive, the team won’t be exactly as special as it is right now. It's like the difference between the 1986 Mets and the 1987 Mets or the 1993 Phillies and the 1994 Phillies. With special teams, it’s very hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice, so for Quinnipiac it will be very important to them to finish the journey on Sunday, to finish what they came this whole way to get, and to cash in on this chance to cement their place into NEC annals that may only come around once in a lifetime.

10. Spending the Week in the Nutmeg State

The road from Loretto, PA to Fairfield and Hamden, Connecticut is indeed a long one. We’re talking about a five and a half to a six hour trip. So when the Red Flash came to Connecticut to play their semifinal game against the Pioneers, they packed a little bit extra to potentially stay over for the rest of the week if they had to play a conference final against Quinnipiac. The situation was if they won in the semis, they would either have to play at QU or they would get to go back home and host the final against Mount. So rather than make the long drive back late Wednesday night and then have to turn around and make the same trip back on Friday night or early Saturday, it made sense to stay for the week if they had to play the Bobcats.

This ended up being a genius move on two fronts. First, the knowledge that their bags were already packed for a championship game could have been an intended, or perhaps unintended, motivational tactic for the team. There is a certain confidence that goes with knowing that you’re planning ahead for two games as opposed to just one. Against a Pioneer team that beat them by 20+ points in both meetings during the regular season, the Red Flash burst out to a 20 point first half lead and never looked book. Second, you would think that staying over will prevent any kind of ‘travel lag’ that may have been present had they had to made back to back long trips. Don’t underestimate the importance of Saint Francis not having to travel.


Thursday: Semifinal recap/highlights & Championship Game quick glance

Friday: Top 10 Championship Game Storylines

Saturday: Full Championship Game Preview

Sunday: Post Game Recap

*The Championship Game will be on Sunday at 5pm on ESPNU. We’ll have exclusive pregame coverage on NEC FRONT ROW LIVE presented by Pilot Pen, with myself and former Seton Hall women’s basketball head coach Phyllis Mangina hosting from our set inside the TD Bank Sports Center, starting at 4pm on NEC Front Row. Once the game goes final, we’ll then be back on the air for all of the postgame reaction and celebration on another edition of FRONT ROW LIVE.

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