The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 17, 2013

St. Francis women on cusp of NEC title

Mike Kovak

JOHNSTOWN — No matter the coach or the players, there’s one constant for the St. Francis women’s basketball team in March.

The Red Flash win when it comes time for the Northeast Conference Tournament.

“There’s a tradition of success. Great players and great coaches have come before me,” said St. Francis coach Joe Haigh, in his first season in charge of the program after previously working as an assistant. “The last four years, we’ve made three championship runs.”

Thanks to an upset of second-seeded Sacred Heart in the semifinals, St. Francis (17-14) finds itself one win from a 12th NEC championship.

That game happens to be against conference heavyweight Quinnipiac (29-2). Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Conn. ESPNU will televise the game, and the winner advances to the NCAA Tournament.

“This is an experience not everybody gets to have,” said junior forward Alli Williams. “We’re anxious, but at the same time, we’re excited. To be on ESPN is not an everyday thing.”

And it’s something not many gave St. Francis a chance at before the conference tournament started, even if the Red Flash are making their fourth championship-game appearance in five years and their 15th overall.

Sacred Heart defeated St. Francis twice during the regular season, but the Red Flash got 27 points from freshman Rebecca Sparks and 24 points, 12 rebounds and six steals from Williams – her 23rd double-double of the season – to win going away, 83-67.

“I think it helped us to be home (in the first round) against Central Connecticut. We played with a lot of heart in that game,” Haigh said. “Against Sacred Heart, we played together and played hard for 40 minutes. We went on the road to a place where we never win. Sacred Heart beat us nine out of 10 times.”

Quinnipiac beat every team in NEC play. The Bobcats own an 18-0 record against conference opponents.

“That’s what makes Quinnipiac so impressive. It’s really, really tough to do that. Only great teams do that,” Haigh said. “They’ve answered every challenge.”

Felicia Barron leads Quinnipiac in scoring (13.6 average) and Jasmine Martin averages 13.3 points. Brittany McQuian is one of the NEC’s premier defenders and she averages 8.8 rebounds.

“Quinnipiac has a lot of different weapons,” Williams said. “We’ve made a couple runs at them, but with their chemistry and composure, they never panicked. They’re a very good team.”

Quinnipiac defeated St. Francis by scores of 85-69 (Jan. 21) and 81-56 (Feb. 16).

“If Quinnipiac beats us again, they’ll have to play one good game to do it,” Haigh said.

That’s because St. Francis found its postseason swagger.

The Red Flash are 41-7 all-time in NEC Tournament play and own a 2-0 mark against Quinnipiac in the conference tournament. In championship games, the Red Flash are 11-3, including a 72-57 victory over Monmouth in 2001.

“We have to have the same mindset against Quinnipiac that we had against Sacred Heart. We lost to Quinnipiac both times like we lost to Sacred Heart,” Williams said. “We have to stay focused, composed and stick to the game plan. I can tell you they’ll absolutely be in for a battle.”