#NECWBB FAST BREAK: 2/20/19

Wagner head coach Heather Jacobs


STARTING LINEUP: WAGNER SEAHAWKS


“We talk about progress. A lot of progress, a lot of process, getting better in the moment, winning every day, getting one percent better…all of that. In turn, the returners, they know and they remember. We were in a lot of close games (last year) and those moments have not been forgotten.”


That was Wagner head women’s basketball coach Heather Jacobs back at NEC’s Social Media Day in October answering a question from former Seahawk head coach Pam Roecker as to whether or not she thought this was the year the Seahawks could make the jump back into the NEC’s postseason for the first time since 2014. Jacobs’ team had just been selected last in the annual coaches’ pre-season poll, an unfortunately familiar place for Wagner women’s basketball, as the program had ended up at the bottom of the standings in each of the last four straight seasons and six out of the last seven.

But this year is proving to be different. Something special is in the process of happening on Staten Island as the Wagner College Seahawks are beating the odds, the prognostications, and a lot of other NEC teams as well. The Seahawks have surged out to a 7-6 start, their best NEC record after 13 games since 2004. How long has that been? Well, consider that in February of 2004 the iPhone didn’t exist, Facebook was only weeks old, many of the current group of players were in preschool or kindergarten, and Coach Jacobs was halfway through her college playing career at Franklin Pierce.

With a win on Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson, Wagner would secure their first playoff berth since 2014 and only their fourth playoff appearance over the last 15 years.

Wagner was once a very strong and very proud basketball program in the late 80’s, throughout the 90’s, and into the beginning of the new century. Wagner was an original NEC women’s basketball institution, and for the first 18 straight years, they were staples in the women’s basketball tournament. During that 18 year stretch from 1987-2004, the Seahawks were coached by Gela Mikalauskas (1979-90), Pam Roecker (1990-98), and Tara Gallagher (1998-05). They would reach the tournament semi-finals nine times and appear in four NEC Championship Games. The crown jewel would come in 1989 under Mikalauskas, when league MVP Maureen Coughlin paced the team to a 22-win campaign and a 66-60 victory over Robert Morris in the final, to earn the program’s first and only NEC Championship.

From 1996-2003, under Roecker and Gallagher, Wagner would go on a run of eight straight seasons of double-digit conference wins. The 87 wins during that period was third best in the league behind only NEC super-powers Saint Francis U and Mount St. Mary’s. In the middle of an era where Saint Francis and Mount St. Mary’s were dominating the league, the Seahawks were able to hold their own and be perennial contenders. Both Roecker and Gallagher agreed that the key was in the players they recruited to the program, some of the school’s all-time greats, such as Nia Ryan, Amanda Young, Susan Moffat, Meredith Kearns, Carrie Walker, Joy Gallagher, Patti Winterfeldt, and Brenda Milano.

“One of the first memories I had was walking into the student center and seeing the Verrazano Bridge and knowing we could recruit kids there,” replied Roecker. “Over my time we had students from 11 different states and we always sold the connection to New York City and that the campus was 100 acres in a very self-contained environment. It was a beautiful atmosphere, very peaceful and safe, with access to the greatest city in the world.”

“At that time we had a great group of players that just loved to play the game,” said Gallagher. “You have to have the players that want to put the time and effort into it and that have the skill as well.”

In 2004, the team finished 8-10, a down year by their standards, but still enough to qualify for the NEC tournament as the number six seed. The team was slowed by the loss of their All-Conference senior Carrie Walker. Walker missed 11 conference games in January and February due to injury, where the team went 4-7. Walker returned right before the start of the playoffs, but the Seahawks were upended on their home court by the Monmouth Hawks. “We were picked to be pretty good that year, and although we did okay, it wasn’t, obviously, the year we wanted to have,” recounted Gallagher.  

Following that season, Wagner lost a ton of firepower, including three starters: Walker, Vanessa Wyffels, and Ashley Linscott, which equated to 40% of their offense. In 2005 the Seahawks would finish 2-25 and 2-16 in NEC play, missing the NEC Tournament for the first time ever. “It was hard, it was tough, but the kids still worked hard. Your heart breaks for the kids more than anything,” said Gallagher.

Little did anyone know at the time, but that would end up being the first of a rough 14 season stretch for the Seahawks, which saw them make the playoffs only three times while finishing in last place nine times. “I don’t think it was just one thing. I think obviously when you don’t win it’s tougher to recruit,” noted Gallagher. “Between myself and when Gela (Mikalauskas) was there and then Lisa (Cermignano), there have been some great players, don’t get me wrong. But it’s been a thing where unfortunately once you start to slide and don’t have winning seasons, the confidence level has to be there, and it’s tough to come back from.”

Enter Heather Jacobs, who was hired in April of 2016 as the program’s ninth head coach. Jacobs was no stranger to turning around programs. In 2007-08 she took over a Daniel Webster program that won only 10 games in her first season, finishing 2-11 in conference. By year three, the Eagles won 20 games, were 15-1 in conference, and regular season champions. Jacobs would then head to Adelphi where it would be a similar story. The Panthers finished in 14th place during her first season, but would end up 14-5 and make the Northeast-10 playoffs in her third campaign.

Now in her third season on Grymes Hill, Coach Jacobs’ building process is starting to show major results once again. “It’s a process that I think is behind the scenes and in the locker room. We knew we were making progress even though last year we didn’t really win as many games as we wanted or hoped,” said Jacobs. “We knew that there was progress there and whether or not it was player development, in the locker room, the culture, standards, expectation…it was happening and people couldn’t see that necessarily.”

In her office, underneath her desk, Coach Jacobs has a wall of bricks. Bricks decorated in the official Seahawks colors: green, black, white, and silver. Written on the bricks are team and individual accomplishments dating back to her first season on Staten Island. Accomplishments such as Team GPA’s, Rookie and Player of the Week honors, and Jacobs’ first NEC win, 58-45 over St. Francis Brooklyn back in January of 2017, just to name a few. The brick wall symbolizes building the program, brick by brick, while recognizing the key moments along the way. 

“Ultimately, we focus on standards, expectations, and small successes. That’s what that little thing is behind you (the brick wall). We really focus on that, because if you lose sight and get really stuck on the end and the result, there is a lot of good along the way, and I think it’s important to stop and recognize that. We might have lost the game, but we did A, B, and C way better than we did before and we really try to be intentional of recognizing that. It is hard when you are losing because everyone is competitive and wants to win, but when you do that it allows you to hold steady on the course of where you want to be and keep the bigger picture in mind.”

For the current group of Seahawk players, it isn’t about dwelling on the past or a 14 year ‘losing culture’. No player was a part of the roster prior to Coach Jacobs’ arrival, so to them, the only things they know and that matter are the steps of progression made over the last three years, or in other words, the bricks that they’ve had a hand in building.

Redshirt sophomore Taylah Simmons is the Seahawks leading scorer and has been a force since the start of conference play, averaging 19 points per game. Over the last five outings, in which Wagner has won four out of five, Simmons has put up 20.8 points per game and has netted a Player of the Week honor. For Simmons, she was excited to come over from Australia to be a part of the building process at Wagner. “I liked how it was a small school, so it was kind of like a small community, like a family. I don’t have family here, so it’s nice to have a sense of community and family. Coach Jacobs had just got in, and I knew she was building up the team, and I was excited to be a part of the building process. It was definitely hard at some points last year, but I try to be as positive as I can every moment of the day. We saw such good glimpses of us last year during practice. I held on to that, because I knew we had so much potential.”

Simmons, along with her teammates, are finally finding that potential this season. Wagner’s signature “we’ve arrived” moment might very well have been a thrilling 87-85 win over St. Francis Brooklyn on February 11th. In a game that featured multiple swings of momentum, Wagner pulled it out in the end on a Taylah Simmons game winning jumper in the lane in the final seconds. “I think this year everyone’s role is super important. We’re playing all together. Everyone knows their spots, everyone knows their roles, and it’s more of a team dynamic,” noted Simmons. “I feel like now that we’ve got a couple of wins under our belt, we know what we have to do and we know what it’s like to win, so we want to keep it up.”

“I’m just really excited for the program,” expressed Roecker. “I think it’s a combination of she’s a really good coach, she has a system in place, she’s stayed patient, she’s stuck to her philosophy, and she recruited some really good players. That’s the whole secret. In our success in the 90’s when you talk about players like Brenda Milano, Patti Winterfeldt, Alicia Conquest, Susan Moffat, Nia Ryan…the better players, the better you look as a coach. When you have the combination of both, it can really set you up for success.”

“I’ll look on the program every now and then,” said Gallagher. “I met Coach Jacobs when I inducted Meredith (Kerns) into the Hall of Fame (in 2017), and she was unbelievable. I really liked her and her staff was awesome. They came in and some of her players as well. They came in and congratulated Meredith and talked with us. I am so thrilled that she is having a really, really good year because she deserves it. You can tell how much passion she has for the game and she absolutely loves Wagner and you can see how much the kids love and respect her.”

While the excitement continues to grow as the wins start to pile up, Coach Jacobs and the Seahawks are quick to point out that the job isn’t nearly finished yet and that there is still plenty of work to do. “We have to come every day. The ability to stay present, focus on one game at a time, and continue to play hard for 40 minutes. If we do that, we’ll be in a good spot,” commented Coach Jacobs. “It’s crazy to think about where we were, just from the beginning of the year to now. We’ve learned so much and we understand from a preparation standpoint, to a practice standpoint, to gameday…everybody understands. We know what we need to do. It’s locking in to make sure we take care of business. It’s easy to get distracted when everybody is so excited. It’s nice that you want to celebrate that and be excited for where you are, but stay grounded in the sense that you have to keep working every day and every moment.”

“Keys will be staying consistent, not letting up, and keeping that foot on the accelerator,” added Simmons. “We have ups and downs, but we have to try to get as many ups as we can.”

Following our sit-down interview for this feature, Coach Jacobs handed Simmons a blank brick for the Melbourne native to mark to recognize her recent Player of the Week honor. It will be the latest brick to be added to Coach Jacobs’ wall as the Seahawks continue their process of building themselves back into contention in the NEC.

“For me it’s one game at a time, be in the moment. There is still a lot of basketball left to play,” said Jacobs. “We can still continue to get better individually and collectively. There are teams that are fighting for survival, there are teams dominating, and there are teams that are really trying to establish their identity. Everyone is on their own unique journey and we’re just trying to steer our course, run our race, and play our best basketball at the right time.”


The Wagner Seahawks will have a chance to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2014 with a win on Saturday at Fairleigh Dickinson. If Wagner can pick up two more wins over their final five NEC games, they will assure themselves of their first .500 season in conference play since 2003.  



#NECWBB NEWS AND NOTES


*WHERE THEY STAND: Half of the 2019 playoff field has been decided, as Saint Francis U, Sacred Heart, and St. Francis Brooklyn all clinched playoff spots this past weekend to join Robert Morris in the 2019 NEC Women’s Basketball Tournament.

The Colonials suffered their first league setback on Saturday, falling to Mount St. Mary’s 61-55 in Emmitsburg. But RMU would manage to rebound on the road in Loretto two days later, winning a rematch of last year’s NEC Championship Game against the Red Flash 66-60. With the win, Robert Morris maintains a three-game lead over second place in the race for the regular season championship and the tournament’s #1 seed. With another win or a Seahawk loss, the Colonials can wrap-up a first round home playoff game in the North Athletic Complex, a place where Robert Morris has defeated their last 21 straight conference opponents. 

The reigning NEC champion Saint Francis Red Flash assured a return trip to the postseason for a 24th time, and 10th time in the last 11 years, with a 77-65 win in New Jersey over Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday. The win coupled with the Colonial loss had the Flash in a position where they controlled their own destiny. Had they defeated RMU on Monday they would have been one game back with still another game against the Colonials to go, putting them in the driver’s seat in the race to the #1 seed. Instead, SFU now find themselves three games out of first and in a battle for the #2 seed.

Sacred Heart will be appearing in their 20th straight NEC Tournament, the longest active streak in the NEC. They opened up a season long four game NEC road trip by splitting a pair of games against Bryant and LIU Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers took advantage of losses by Saint Francis and Sacred Heart, returning into a three-way tie with the Pioneers and Red Flash for second place. By sweeping their games against the Blackbirds and Blue Devils, the Terriers officially wrapped up their third straight playoff berth and 14th in school history.

The Wagner Seahawks, winners of four out of their last five, fell a game off of the pace for a top four spot and a first round home playoff game position after splitting games against Central Connecticut State and Mount St. Mary’s. At 7-6, the Seahawks own a winning record after 13 NEC games for the first time since 2004 and have a hold on sole possession of fifth place. After four straight years of finishing in last place, and predicted to finish last by the NEC coaches again this season, Wagner’s magic number to clinch their first playoff spot since 2014 is down to one.

Mount St. Mary’s made up some lost ground this weekend by knocking off previous NEC unbeaten Robert Morris and following that up by handing the Wagner Seahawks their first defeat in the month of February. The Mountaineers are one game behind Wagner and two games out of the top four. The Bryant Bulldogs stand at 5-8 and in seventh place with a big game against the team directly above them, Mount St. Mary’s, coming up on Saturday.

The bottom of the standings certainly got more interesting this weekend following LIU Brooklyn’s 69-64 win at the Barclays Center over Sacred Heart. After starting the year 0-10 in league play, the Blackbirds have won two out of their last three and are only one game behind Central Connecticut State and Fairleigh Dickinson for the eighth and final playoff spot. In fact, the Blackbirds will play both the Blue Devils and Knights during the final week of conference play, games that could have major implications as to who makes the postseason and which two teams will be left on the outside looking in.


*KEYSTONE STATE COLLISION: 345 days after meeting at DeGol Arena to decide the 2018 NEC Championship, the Robert Morris Colonials returned to Loretto for the first time since last March to take on the reigning NEC champion Saint Francis Red Flash.

The game would come down to the fourth quarter and see the Colonials outscore SFU 11-4 over the final three minutes to come away with a 66-60 victory, their 12th win in their last 13 games. The game featured several eye popping surprises, first of which was the RMU defense holding Jess Kovatch to a career low six points on 1-9 shooting. Kovatch, who had averaged 25.4 points on 42.3% shooting in seven prior career games against the Colonials, became the sixth straight opposing team’s leading scorer to be held to single digit scoring against RMU.

“It’s a team effort. It’s not just that matchup, but the team energy to talk,” said Robert Morris head coach Charlie Buscaglia in his post-game interview on ESPN3 with Pam Roecker. “Our five, Nneka Ezeigbo, was great with talking and continuing to stay to the next play. It was a team effort, (Kovatch) is a great player, she’s a great offensive scorer, and we had to be really good today to stop her.”

The Red Flash, one of the top free throw shooting teams in the league, uncharacteristically left a lot of points off the board due to missed free throw opportunities, going 16 for 26 from the charity stripe on the night. Robert Morris also dominated the boards with a 48-34 advantage, and a 19-6 advantage on the offensive glass, leading to 17 Colonial second chance points. RMU also hoisted up a season high 39 three point attempts. Six of those three point attempts were successfully converted by sophomore guard Nina Augustin, leading to a career high 18 point outing. Nneka Ezeigbo finished a rebound shy of a double-double with 16 points and 9 rebounds.

The teams will meet up again in the regular season finale on Thursday, March 7th in Moon Township. Check out highlights from Monday night’s prime-time President’s Day showdown below…


*HISTORY FOR THE DUO FROM DOWN UNDER: St. Francis Brooklyn’s ‘Duo from Down Under’ had themselves a weekend as the Terriers welcomed in LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut State for games at the Pope PE Center. On Saturday, senior guard Amy O’Neill recorded her second triple-double of the season with a 16 point, 10 rebound, and 11 assist afternoon against borough rival LIU Brooklyn. O’Neill recorded the lucky 13th triple-double in NEC history and joins RMU’s Chinata Nesbit from 2008 as only players in league annals to have multiple triple-doubles in a single season. All this coming just two weeks after O’Neill recorded her first triple-double, and the first in program history, with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in 44 minutes against Sacred Heart. The Melbourne native is one of only six players in the nation to have multiple triple-doubles on the season. Also during the game against the Blackbirds, an O’Neill dish to Johnson on a made jumper would give O’Neill the school’s single season assist record, which previously stood for 28 years. The senior’s tally now stands at 207 helpers, and counting, in 2019.

“Amy is an amazing player, and definitely the heart and soul of this team,” St. Francis Brooklyn head coach Linda Cimino commented during her post-game press conference. “She’s such a great playmaker for us and I’m really proud of her and happy for her.”

Join us next week here on the #NECWBB Fast Break, where we will sit down and chat with the NEC’s Triple-Double Queen.  

Meanwhile, O’Neill’s tag team partner, Jade Johnson, was also busy making history of her own on Saturday afternoon, netting her 1,000th career point in the first half of the game against LIU Brooklyn. Johnson reaches the milestone as a junior, and becomes the 18th member of the St. Francis Brooklyn 1,000 point club, joining teammate Maria Palarino who eclipsed 1,000 points earlier this year at Mount St. Mary’s. Johnson and Palarino join Central’s Kiana Patterson, Bryant’s Sydney Holloway, and Sacred Heart’s Katherine Haines, as players who have reached 1,000 career points this season.

“To score 1,000 points is a great accomplishment, but to do it as a junior is really tremendous,” said Coach Cimino. “I’m really happy for her. She needed 20 points going into today’s game, I didn’t realize she was going to get it in the first half! She was on today. It was a great day for the Aussies today.”

With only five regular season games to go, plus any playoff games her team plays, Fairleigh Dickinson senior guard Madelynn Comly owns 958 career points, 42 shy of 1,000. Comly would have to average 8.4 points over the last five games to get there.



A LOOK AHEAD


Saturday, February 23, 2019
St. Francis Brooklyn at Robert Morris, 1pm
Sacred Heart at Central Connecticut State, 1pm
Mount St. Mary’s at Bryant, 1pm
Wagner at Fairleigh Dickinson, 2pm
LIU Brooklyn at Saint Francis U, 4pm


Monday, February 25, 2019
LIU Brooklyn at Robert Morris, 7pm
Mount St. Mary’s at Central Connecticut, 7pm
Sacred Heart at Fairleigh Dickinson, 7pm (ESPN+)
Bryant at Wagner, 7pm
St. Francis Brooklyn at Saint Francis U, 7pm


With just five games, and two and a half weeks, remaining, the race towards March and the NEC Tournament is really starting to heat up. Looking ahead to this upcoming weekend, there are several games with major postseason implications…


*St. Francis Brooklyn’s Pennsylvania Road Trip: After last week’s loss to Wagner put them one game off of the pace for second place, the Terriers fought their way back into the pack with Sacred Heart and Saint Francis U by sweeping a pair of games against LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut. The Terriers chances for ending up with one of the tournament’s top seeds could very well rest on their performance in Pennsylvania this weekend against the Colonials on Saturday and Red Flash on Monday. St. Francis Brooklyn welcomed both of the NEC’s Pennsylvania institutions into Brooklyn back in mid-January and came away with a split. Robert Morris held the Terriers to just 56 points on 37.5% shooting, while forcing 19 turnovers in a Colonial 75-56 win, before SFBK bounced back 48 hours later with 78 points on 48% shooting in a 78-65 win over the reigning champion Red Flash, handing SFU their first conference loss of the season.

Since the year 2000, the Terriers have never swept both games of the Pennsylvania road trip, however they have won at both Moon Township and Loretto in the same single season before. In 2015 they won at SFU and lost at Robert Morris during the regular season, but returned to RMU several weeks later and defeated the Colonials at the Sewell Center in the NEC Championship Game.

St. Francis Brooklyn has already clinched a spot in the NEC Tournament for the third straight season and for the 14th time in program history, so now it is all about jockeying for position. The Terriers are battling to finish in the top four and clinch the program’s first ever home playoff game. A win in one or both of the games out in the Keystone State would go a long way to boosting their chances here in the waning stages of the regular season.


*Sacred Heart at Fairleigh Dickinson: The Pioneers will travel to the Garden State to meet the FDU Knights on Monday night at the Rothman Center. The game will be broadcasted live at 7pm on ESPN+ with myself and Kim Adams on the call. Sacred Heart is in a second place stalemate with St. Francis Brooklyn and Saint Francis U. The Pioneers would love to reach one of the top two seeds, which would ensure that a potential semi-final game would be played at the Pitt Center. The road to a postseason at the Pitt Center will ironically have to be earned on the road, as the Pioneers are in the midst of a season high four game road trip, playing five of their final seven regular season games on the road. Meanwhile, the Knights are fighting for their postseason lives. Fairleigh Dickinson has been to the NEC Tournament each of the last four seasons, with the last two years coming as the #8 seed. To make it back in 2019, the Knights will have to fight off both CCSU and LIU Brooklyn, in a situation where there are three teams likely battling for just one spot.  

The Pioneers and Knights met just two weeks ago in Fairfield with the Pioneers coming away with a 68-62 victory. SHU led by 18 points with just over seven minutes remaining, only to see the Knights stage a 19-4 run to pull within a single possession inside of two minutes to go. Sacred Heart managed to hold on for the win, led by Candice Leatherwood’s 19 points and Kat Haines’ double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Sacred Heart has dominated the all-time series, sporting a 30-5 advantage. However, while the Pioneers are 18-0 all-time against FDU at home, they have tasted defeat four out of their last five trips to the Rothman Center.


*The Mount/Bryant Rematch: In one of the most memorable NEC games of the year so far, Bryant staged an epic fourth quarter comeback at the Mount back on January 12th. Trailing by 11 points going into the fourth quarter, and by as many as 14 points within the final quarter itself, Bryant went on an 11-0 run to tie the game at 64 with 2:49 to play. The Bulldogs would outscore the Mountaineers 9-4 the rest of the way to pull off the improbable win, holding the Mount without a field goal for the final 6:09. It was a game that left Mount St. Mary’s frustrated that they let get away. Now six weeks later, they will meet in Rhode Island for the rematch, in a game neither can afford to lose. With just one game of separation between the two schools in the NEC standings, Bryant would be eliminated from top four, and first round home playoff game, contention with a loss, while Mount would slide down to seventh place and lose the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Bulldogs.



THREE STARS

*For the games of February 16-18, 2019   


HONORABLE MENTIONS: Nneka Ezeigbo, RMU…Khaleah Edwards, WC…Katherine Haines, SHU…Jeydah Johnson, LIU…Juliette Lawless, MSM…Rebecca Lee, MSM…Kiana Patterson, CCSU…Hannah Scanlan, BRY…Jatarrikah Settle, MSM…Brandy Thomas, LIU


THREE: Amy O’Neill, SR (SFBK): Two weeks after her first triple-double, and first triple-double in program history, O’Neill once again reached the historic milestone, this time in regulation. O’Neill filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists against the borough rival Blackbirds. O’Neill is one of just six players in the nation to have recorded multiple triple-doubles this season. Two days later, O’Neill would flirt with the mark once again, with an 8 point, 8 rebound, and 8 assist game against Central Connecticut, helping the Terriers to clinch a third straight trip to the NEC Tournament. The senior point guard is the only player in the NEC to rank top 20 in scoring and top 10 in assists and rebounds. O’Neill also stands second in the nation in assists per game and 10th in minutes played.


TWO: Nina Augustin, SO (RMU): Nina Augustin was our ‘Player of the Game’ during Monday night’s ESPN3 broadcast, and is now our #2 Star of the Week. The box score will show that Augustin had a career offensive night on Monday night against the Red Flash, with a career high 18 points on six made threes. However, what the box score won’t necessarily show is her outstanding effort on the defensive side of the ball. Augustin played a large hand in the Robert Morris defense limiting the nation’s eighth ranked scorer, Jess Kovatch, to just six points on 1-9 shooting, the lowest single-game point total of her career. The sophomore from Finland started both games this weekend, making her first appearances in the starting five since December 7th against Kent State.


ONE: Jade Johnson, JR (SFBK): Johnson had a historic weekend with her family in town all the way from Australia, pouring in a total of 52 points over the course of games against LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut State. Included in the 52, was her 1,000th career point, scored during the second quarter of Saturday’s showdown with the Blackbirds. Johnson would finish the day with 31 points on 13-21 shooting, making it the fourth time this year she has reached 30 points in a game, and the second time this year she’s done it against LIU Brooklyn. Also during that contest, Johnson would score the historic bucket that allowed Amy O’Neill to break the school’s single season assists record. Two days later, against the Blue Devils, the junior guard was right back at it. Johnson led the team with 21 points on 9-21 shooting against CCSU. On the season, Johnson ranks second in the league in both scoring and made threes. During the month of February, Johnson is averaging 22.6 points per game on 45% shooting and 39% from beyond the arc. 



STAT OF THE WEEK


*The greatest one-year turnaround in NEC history was the 2004 to 2005 Robert Morris Colonials. In their first season under Sal Buscaglia, the Colonials finished in last place, going 3-24 and 2-16 in NEC play during the 2004 season. Led by RMU Hall of Famer Sugeiry Monsac, the 2005 Colonials would go on to finish 17 games better overall and 11 games better in conference play, ending up a with a 20-10 overall and 13-5 NEC record, advancing all the way to the NEC Championship Game.


Some of the other top one-year turnarounds in NEC play:

-LIU: 4 wins in 2009 to 14 in 2010 (+10)
-LIU: 2 wins in 1999 to 11 in 2000 (+9)
-CCSU: 5 wins in 2014 to 14 in 2015 (+9)
-RMU: 6 wins in 2013 to 14 in 2014 (+8)


A very special thank you this week to Wagner head coach Heather Jacobs, redshirt-sophomore Taylah Simmons, and former Seahawk head coaches Tara Gallagher and Pam Roecker for sitting down with us to talk about the great tradition and the current rise of Wagner women’s basketball. Be sure to join us back here at the NEC Overtime! Blog next Wednesday, February 27th for a unique WBB Fast Break column. First, we’ll check in with the NEC’s triple-double queen, St. Francis Brooklyn senior point guard, Amy O’Neill. Then, we will take you behind the scenes of the Saint Francis/Robert Morris ESPN3 broadcast from this past Monday night and show you what it takes to put on a basketball national broadcast. We’ll show you all of the preparation involved in the days leading up to the game. Plus we will give you a glimpse at the gameday production, meet the crew that helps make the broadcast possible, highlight some of the production decisions that helped shape what you saw on TV, and discuss what stories and information didn’t make the broadcast and why.

A Look at the NEC’s Most Improved

As someone with two young kids, I’ve really come to appreciate efficiency. Getting everyone out the door, in the car, safely to daycare, and then to work in time for a 9:00 AM meeting poses major challenges without efficiency. And it increases my disdain for those who schedule 9:00 AM meetings.

If I make my lunch the evening before, that buys me five extra minutes to invest in the morning routine. If I lay out my clothes for the next day, there’s another two minutes. Change our toddler into his day clothes right after he wakes up in the morning, another minute. Back the car into the driveway the evening before so I don’t have to backout into the street the next morning, there’s 10 extra seconds! OK, maybe I’m a little crazy with this time efficiency stuff.

My love for efficiency extends to NEC hoops. I’m visiting KenPom.com more times each day than I’m going to my Facebook page. (Trust me, it’s better this way.) For this latest Overtime! Blog post I’m scouring KenPom to find some players who’ve greatly improved their efficiency numbers from last year. Consider this a compilation of the unofficial All-NEC Most Improved Team.

Let’s start with the most notable improver.

E.J. Anosike, Sacred Heart (87 ORtg in 2017-18 to 118 ORtg this season)

At NEC Social Media Day, Anthony Latina specifically targeted Anosike as someone who should strive to win the NEC’s Most Improved Player award. This declaration is close to coming to fruition, as Anosike, who no longer sits on the bench behind Joe Lopez and Mario Matasovic, has illustrated a stark improvement. The sophomore has excelled as the team’s primary power forward, improving his effective field goal percentage by almost 17 points in conference play! And that’s with far more usage. He’s expanded his shooting range (39.5% 3PT on 43 attempts), developed a much improved touch (60.3% on shots near the rim) and continues to rebound at a high level. Anosike’s statistic profile (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg), size, position and bull-in-the-china shop game had me wondering how he stacks up next to a NEC all-time great when he was a sophomore:

  • Anosike, 2018-19: 118 ORtg, 22% possession rate, 55% eFG, 18% def rebound rate, 57% FTA/FGA
  • Jalen Cannon, 2013-14: 117 ORtg, 24% possession rate, 51% eFG, 20% def rebound rate, 55% FTA/FGA

Wow, that’s a heck of a comp for Anosike!

Adam Grant, Bryant (94 ORtg in 2017-18 to 104 ORtg this season)

On the surface Grant’s counting numbers over his 3-year career (13.4 ppg as freshman, 15.6 ppg as sophomore, 15.4 ppg as junior) doesn’t illustrate improvement, but a look under the efficiency hood depicts a different tale. We have always respected his ability to drain clutch perimeter shots, a skill that makes him one of the more talented guards in the conference. His quick release that requires very little separation is impressive to watch. Case in point:

 

 

Honestly, you can fall into a Twitter wormhole watching clips of Adam Grant clutch 3s (trust me, there’s plenty of them)! He’s always been a shotmaker from day one, but the addition of freshman Joe Kasperzyk and grad transfer Byron Hawkins into the backcourt has helped reduce Grant’s burden, putting him in better spots to succeed. The talent infusion has led to Grant shooting a career best 37.4% from behind the arc (41.2% in league play), while sporting a career low turnover rate (14.1%). He basically isn’t sacrificing scoring despite fewer shot attempts. Efficiency!

Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson (102 ORtg in 2017-18 to 108 ORtg this season)

Jenkins is the lifeblood of the Knights, handling the point guard duties while playing nearly 92% of the team’s minutes this season. That’s A LOT of playing time, and yet Jenkins has managed to take a page out of the uber-efficient Glenn Sanabria book – post an assist rate north of 20%, turn the ball over infrequently with respect to a floor general and offer consistent production from behind the arc (37.8% in NEC play) and at the free throw line (88.6%, 37th nationally). It comes as no surprise that FDU is one of the most efficient offenses in league play, with the multi-faceted Jenkins playing a vital role.

Raul Frias, LIU Brooklyn (107 ORtg in 2017-18 to 120 ORtg this season)

The senior guard from Miami is the epitome of instant offense off the bench. With his long-range moxie as the focal point, Frias is posting the third highest efficiency rating in league play while also registering a solid 2.7% steal rate. He’s made a three-pointer in 17 of his last 18 games, a remarkable sign of consistency for someone who plays just 48% of the LIU Brooklyn’s minutes. Compared to last season, Frias has improved his scoring production by 290% (3.0 ppg to 8.7 ppg) and his rebounding numbers by 231% (1.3 rpg to 3.0 rpg), while improving his defensive profile as well. On a Blackbirds squad that prides itself on getting out in transition, Frias has emerged as the reliable scoring threat camped out behind the three-point line.


Kinnon LaRose, Sacred Heart
(112 ORtg in 2017-18 to 135 ORtg this season)

This tweet was probably what spurred the idea for me to write this post in the first place:

 

LaRose has always been an efficient player – competent three-point shooters who don’t turn the ball over usually are – but this year has been exceptional. He’s clearly the beneficiary of more talent around him, compared to last season when he and Sean Hoehn were forced to do much of the heavy lifting in the backcourt. Now with Cam Parker, Koreem Ozier and Aaron Clarke in the mix, LaRose has slotted into an off-the-bench, stretch-four role which has enhanced his strengths. There’s more space for him to make outside shots, he’s able to finish near the rim by blowing by bigger defenders and his savvy positioning has made him a sneaky good offensive rebounder (8.2% offensive rebound rate).

And now for an unconventional bonus selection…

 

Vado Morse, Mount St. Mary’s (111 ORtg this season)

Yes, the probable NEC Rookie of the Year obviously didn’t play for the Mount last season, yet his improved efficiency has been noteworthy from an intra-season standpoint. The Mount played a difficult non-conference schedule full of bigger, physical defenses which surely impacted Morse’s play from the start. Mount coach Dan Engelstad agrees, but he also believes there are other factors at play besides the non-conference schedule.

“Yeah I think that’s part of it, but I also think the game’s starting to slow down for him,” he said with respect to Morse’s improvement against NEC competition. “I think he’s done a lot of film study, I think he’s really become a student of the game, finding out where he can best put himself and our team in good situations and I think that’s showing up lately.”

In league play, Morse has been unguardable at times, showcasing a lethal quick release on the perimeter while flying by defenders when he puts the ball on the floor. Truth be told, he’s one of the toughest players to guard one-on-one, a scary predicament down the road for opposing NEC coaches. He’s posted a KenPom offensive rating of 100 or higher in 10 of 16 league games, compared to 4 of 10 in non-conference play. Any player who’s showing his productivity by shooting 56% from 2, 37% from 3 and 76% from the free throw line in league play, should be viewed as a serious candidate for an all-conference team.

And now for some honorable mention guys:

Deion Bute, Central Connecticut (102 ORtg in 2017-18 to 111 ORtg this season)
Joe Hugley, Central Connecticut (105 ORtg in 2017-18 to 109 ORtg this season)

Both junior college transfers have seen a steady growth the second year in Donyell Marshall’s system, although for Bute, it could be argued that he would’ve been more efficient in 2017-18 had he not injured his knee halfway through league play.

Elijah Davis, Wagner (95 ORtg in 2017-18 to 101 ORtg this season)

As awesome as Romone Saunders is, Davis may be just as critical to Bashir Mason from an offensive standpoint. In games where Davis has posted an offensive rating north of 100, Wagner is 10-3.

Chris Coalman, Robert Morris (93 ORtg in 2017-18 to 108 ORtg this season)

Coalman may have a limited role in Andy Toole’s rotation, yet something is going right when you’ve made 61% of your shot attempts, some of which came from downtown.

Randall Gaskins, Saint Francis U (intra-season improvement)

Gaskins struggled with his offense during the non-conference campaign, but has since rebounded big time to post a 64.3% effective field goal rate against conference foes.

NEC Parity Dominates Deep into the Season

It happens every season, and least it seems like it does.

“There’s so much parity in the league!”

“Anyone can win it this year!”

Most of us, myself included, go through the song and dance of overstating the league’s balance every October. In some ways we are awarded with our “bold” proclamations – Fairleigh Dickinson won the 2016 NEC tournament after a ninth place selection in the Coaches Preseason Poll. Saint Francis University followed their ninth place designation a preseason later by getting to the NEC Tournament final on a team loaded with talented underclassmen.

But that’s not what I really mean by parity. Sure, teams exceed or underachieve their expectations every year, but what we truly mean by parity is that the league top to bottom will be competitive. And most of the time, the NEC standings usually shake out by early February and we become clearly aware of who the contenders are. 

This season, on the other hand, feels legitimately different.

 

Our friend at The Blue Devils Den (seriously, follow him @BlueDevlsDen) highlights the weirdest of the league, especially after this past weekend. After reading his post, I was willing to take a cursory look into the recent past to determine how unprecedented the current Northeast Conference standings layout is. I had a hunch that 9 teams being within 3 games of each other was atypical.

I didn’t go back very far – here’s the data of each of the past 6 seasons (since the NEC has been at 10 teams) twelve league games in, from 2013-14 to now:

Season 1st Place Record Teams 1 or 2 Games Back of 1st Place 5th Place Record 9th Place Record Difference Between 1st & 9th Place
2018-19 8-4 5 6-6 5-7 3 games
2017-18 10-2 1 7-5 3-9 7 games
2016-17 10-2 3 7-5 3-9 7 games
2015-16 8-4 4 7-5 4-8 4 games
2014-15 10-2 2 7-5 2-10 8 games
2013-14 11-1 0 6-6 3-9 8 games

As I suspected, the current season has an unusual amount of parity and balance any way you slice it. There are five teams either in first place or within 2 games of the top spot. The difference between fifth place and ninth place is merely a game. Over the past 6 seasons, the top nine programs have never been as close as they are today.

We saw a similar amount of parity in 2015-16, the aforementioned campaign where the Knights stunned the world with a roster headlined by sophomores Darian Anderson, Earl Potts, Marcquise Townes and freshman Mike Holloway.

Nevertheless that season of parity clearly had a demonstrated top 8, whereas nine teams this season all have a chance at securing a top 4 spot in the NEC tournament with only six games remaining. It’s certainly more of a long-shot for those programs – LIU Brooklyn, Bryant and CCSU –  that sit with a 5-7 record, but a 5-1 stretch or better could theoretically get them a home playoff game. Are you willing to bet against Tyler Kohl, the defending champs in LIU or a feisty bunch in Smithfield, Rhode Island?

Even the Mount at 3-9 has a chance to make the NEC tournament, with road showdowns against Central Connecticut and Bryant coming up. All of the last place teams from the previous five seasons didn’t have a reasonable shot to make the NEC tournament. You can’t say the same about Dan Engelstad’s energetic and dangerous roster.

How will the 2018-19 season shake out? It’ll be a fascinating final stretch of the season, with each game offering the potential of dramatic shifts in seeding. Tiebreakers will loom large. Enjoy the action – it certainly won’t be dull as we approach March.

#NECWBB FAST BREAK: 2/13/19


STARTING LINEUP: JUJU ON THAT BEAT


Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time – Thomas Merton


After her first two seasons in a Mountaineer women’s basketball uniform, Juliette Lawless had very little to show for it. Sitting behind a very deep roster of talented guards, Lawless only played a total of 167 minutes during her freshman year, an average of less than seven minutes per game. As a sophomore, while her playing time doubled, Lawless didn’t quite have the freedom or the confidence she was looking for. As a result, with half of her Mount basketball career already behind her, not many people knew who she really was or what she was truly capable of.

Finally last season, with a new head coach and a new appreciation for the game she loves, Lawless burst onto the scene in a big way, winning the 2018 NEC Most Improved Player award and getting selected to the All-NEC third team. The jump from her sophomore to junior year included a seven point improvement in scoring average (up to 11.1 points per game), an increase from 15 minutes per game to 33, and a 46% shooting percentage, good for top 10 in the league.

“The first two years I was very meek. I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself as a player,” said Lawless. “I think I was just intimidated because I didn’t think I had natural ability or something. I was just like ‘I don’t know how I ended up here, but somehow I’m here playing college basketball.’ And it was frustrating too because I didn’t have the green light to shoot. My freshman and sophomore year I’d go out there, turn the ball over, and go right back out.”

“Last year I finally started really having fun with it and being able to play freely. Playing is very fluid for me. Being able to do that and re-finding my love for basketball and being able to perform and show that felt really good. It is hard to be fully invested in it when you are not out there making plays for your teammates, actually on the floor. Once I finally got the opportunity to do that, I’m like, ‘I’m not going to mess this one up.’”

While her passion for the sport was revitalized last year, The Mahopac, NY native first fell in love with basketball back when she was in elementary school. “I started playing basketball in second or third grade on this little local MSA (Mahopac Sports Association) team. It was my favorite thing ever. I remember I would get into the car after every game and be like, ‘Mom, I’m in love with basketball!’ Even when I’m struggling now my mom will be like, ‘Remember when you used to get in the car after your games and tell me how much you love basketball?’ That’s kind of when I fell in love with it. Then I started playing competitively, the summer after sixth grade, in AAU. And that’s when it was like, ‘This is it for me, this is serious, and I’m in it.’”

Lawless would star in basketball at the Pomfret School in Connecticut, earning significant interest from Mount St. Mary’s. “Mount was actually one of the most avid letter senders before you could actually make calls. So I would get a lot of letters from them, and I was always like, ‘Mount…I’ve never heard of that.’ Then they really started to show an interest. Brittany Pinkney, on the old staff, reached out a lot to me when you could finally start making phone calls. She drove all the way up to Connecticut, to my boarding school, to watch my games. Then I came on the visit. I wanted to be relatively close to home, I didn’t want it to be a plane ride, and it just seemed like a really good fit for me.”

It was during her official visit that Juliette, known to everyone close to her as JuJu, earned her nickname. “On my official visit, everyone on my team had nicknames, and they were like, ‘Juliette is three syllables, that’s way too long in basketball when passing it.’ So they were like, ‘What type of nicknames do you have before?’ I was always ‘J’ or my family calls me ‘Baby J’ because I’m the youngest. But there was already a ‘J’ on our team, so I was like, ‘My grandma used to call me JuJu, and they were like ‘JuJu!’’ and it’s stuck ever since. My professors call me JuJu, everyone calls me JuJu, and I just introduce myself as JuJu now because it works, and it’s easier to remember. It has a little ring to it.”


Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up – Pablo Picasso


While in the middle of rediscovering her passion for basketball, JuJu was also simultaneously trying to find her passion off of the court as well. “I’ve always kind of been art oriented. In my life, my family is very artistic, my brother is music, my dad is music, my sister is artistic as well, and my mom did art in high school. I always had the interest, but coming into college I just didn’t take art as a serious major because everyone was like, ‘Business…accounting…numbers…writing essays!’ So I tried psych at first and didn’t really like it. Then I was doing comm, and I was actually going to duel major in communications and art. But then I just fell in love with my studio classes, so I ended up taking a lot of studios. Then I met with my advisor and I was like, ‘I don’t have time for a comm major.’ So I’m minoring in comm now and majoring in art, almost on accident. But it’s worked out for me and definitely the right fit, something I enjoy doing a lot.”

“I think JuJu is misunderstood in a lot of ways because she’s such a competitor on the court but she’s also the most laid back person you’ve ever met,” says Mount St. Mary’s head coach Maria Marchesano. “She just goes with the flow. She’s an art major and if you know JuJu that makes 100% sense. She comes into practice a lot of days with paint all over her legs. Very laid back person, but she’s such a competitor out on the floor.”

The creativity and vision that Lawless plays with on the basketball court are the same traits that help lead to her success on canvas and in sketchbooks. “Right now I’m in senior sem, which is you have two gallery shows, you meet twice a week and you basically have to have two conceptual pieces for the two gallery shows. And I’m in figure drawing, which is my first figure drawing class I’ve ever taken, and I love it. So right now we’re just working on technique stuff, it’s all just kind of sketchbook work. I never liked working with charcoal, but ever since taking figure drawing, I love it. I love drawing the human form, and that’s probably my favorite class I’m in right now.”


The best way to predict the future is to create it – Abraham Lincoln


Self-described as a player who drives hard to the rim, almost completely finishes right (even when on the left), can spot up shoot, knock down the open three, and pass relatively well out of the paint, Lawless is currently in the middle of her most outstanding basketball season yet. She stands third in the league in scoring and field goal percentage and fourth in assists and three-point shooting. Her Mountaineers are 4-7 in NEC play, and will go into the final month of the regular season looking to book a return trip to the playoffs after missing out last season.

“She didn’t play those first two years, so really when you look at JuJu, this is really her sophomore campaign in a lot of ways,” said Coach Marchesano. “She didn’t play hardly any minutes at all as a freshman or sophomore. So when you talk about JuJu being the Most Improved Player last year, and then coming into this year, I think the biggest improvement she made has been letting the game come to her and understanding where her moments are to score, where her moments are to shoot the three, and where her moments are to attack.”

As the only senior on a team that is composed of almost entirely underclassmen, JuJu has taken on the leadership role, and has performed quite well in that spot according to her head coach. “She’s having an unbelievable season. She’s done her best to lead this young crew with poise. Being able to lead has been a huge improvement. Handling the ball, getting us organized, and still looking for her own points along the way, has been a huge improvement for JuJu as well. That was tough for her last year, to balance ‘well I’m really good at attacking, but I also need to run the point, so where is my balance?’ This year she has that figured out.”

The next item for JuJu to figure out will be her future plans for after graduation. “I think I’ll end up going back to school to maybe take some education classes to be an art teacher,” said Lawless. “I also do landscaping over the summer, so I was thinking maybe landscape design or something because I have some prior knowledge. So I’m not sure…but definitely something involving art!”

When asked what she hopes her teammates remember of her and what she hopes to leave behind with the program, JuJu was quick to point to her work ethic and the labor that went in to getting her to this point. “I’m someone that I just love physical labor. I love just being on that grind and being exhausted after a workout. Hard work can get you really far. Our senior last year, Caroline Hummell, would always say ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,’ and it’s corny, but it’s true. Just to work hard and be disciplined, but also having fun while doing it and keeping a positive mindset.” 

Over these last two seasons, Mount basketball fans and Northeast Conference basketball fans have had the pleasure of watching the artist known as JuJu Lawless create masterpieces on the court on a nightly basis. However, it’s her signature work ethic which she hopes to be remembered for, and which she hopes to leave behind with her teammates, that could very well end up being her pièce de résistance in Emmitsburg.


Mount St. Mary’s will hope to get Juliette Lawless back on court this weekend as the Mountaineers continue to make a push towards the postseason. The Mount returns home for games against two of the hottest teams in the NEC, Robert Morris on Saturday at 1pm and against Wagner on Monday at 7pm. 



#NECWBB NEWS AND NOTES


*WHERE THEY STAND: The first ticket to the NEC’s annual playoff party has been punched as the Robert Morris Colonials officially clinched a spot in the 2019 NEC Women’s Basketball Tournament with wins this past weekend against Bryant (59-56) and Central Connecticut State (60-40).

The Colonials are a perfect 11-0 in league play, their best start to a conference season in program history, and the fifth best start in league history, since the year 2000. This week RMU can tie, and perhaps surpass, the 2003 Red Flash, who started 12-0, for the fourth best start on that historic list. Their current 11 game win streak is tied for the third longest in the school’s record books.

Just like they’ve been a mainstay atop the league standings this season, the Colonials have also practically been mainstays in the NEC Tournament. Robert Morris has now qualified for six straight, and 14 out of the last 15, NEC Tournaments. RMU has advanced to the championship game in each of the last five seasons, resulting in three tournament titles during this stretch.

Up next, Robert Morris will hit the road for games at Mount St. Mary’s and Saint Francis U. RMU will have a chance to wrap up a first-round home game this weekend based on their own results, as well as outcomes from other games around the league.

Sitting three games behind the Colonials are Sacred Heart and Saint Francis U. Both teams are 8-3 in NEC play and tied for second place. At the moment, the Red Flash hold the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage, but these two teams still have another game against each other coming up. SFU will have an opportunity to further their tiebreaker strength over Sacred Heart by securing a win over the NEC’s first place team, when they host Robert Morris on Monday. The reigning champions can clinch a playoff berth this weekend with a pair of wins, while the Pioneers can clinch their 20th straight postseason appearance with wins and some outside help.

St. Francis Brooklyn’s 87-85 setback to Wagner dropped them out of the second place tie with Saint Francis and Sacred Heart, and into sole possession of fourth place. The Terriers are still in a ‘first round home game’ position, but now are only one game clear of the Seahawks. Wagner stands at 6-5, over .500 in league play after 11 games for the first time since 2003-04. After four straight years finishing in the basement of the NEC standings, Wagner has made a strong push forward in 2019, and find themselves in serious contention for a first round playoff home game. Wagner hasn’t hosted a playoff game since hosting the entire NEC Tournament quarter and semifinal rounds back in 2004. The Seahawks are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.  

Mount St. Mary’s, which has dropped its last three in a row, and Bryant, which has dropped four straight, have slid down the standings and into a tie for sixth place. Central Connecticut State and Fairleigh Dickinson remain tied for the eighth and final playoff position, while LIU Brooklyn, fresh off of its first NEC victory of the year, were able to make up some ground on Monday night, and now find themselves only two games out of the top eight.


*LOVE, MARRIAGE, & BASKETBALL: Earlier this season, a six part video series on St. Francis Brooklyn’s associate head coach Chenel Harris-Smith and assistant coach Sean Smith was released. The Smith’s, both first year assistants with the Terriers under Linda Cimino, met through coaching in 2014, were married in 2017, and now for the first time work on the same coaching staff. The videos documenting their unique love story were conducted by Andy Lipton and released on Twitter back in the fall by Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame writer and reporter Mel Greenberg. With Valentine’s Day approaching this week, it’s the perfect time of year to check out this series if you haven’t seen it yet, or to watch it again even if you already have…


*SHU BACK ON TRACK: Going into this past weekend’s games, the Sacred Heart Pioneers had gone from winning six straight to dropping three in a row. In speaking with Pioneers head coach Jessica Mannetti last week, in advance of Sacred Heart’s game against Mount St. Mary’s, she highlighted several areas that needed to improve: pace of play, shooting/scoring, turnovers, and rebounding. All of those boxes were checked, and then some, during SHU’s 76-41 victory on Saturday over the Mount on ESPN3.

The Pioneers raced out of the gate at a blistering pace, shooting 15-27 and 8-13 from three, in the first half. They would finish the afternoon shooting 47% overall and 13-26 from downtown. The 13 made threes would set a new high-water mark for their most in a single game this season, and the 76 points would serve as the second most posted in a single game this year. The Pios also won the rebounding battle, 40-33, and committed fewer turnovers, 19-16. All five Pioneer starters finished in double-figures scoring.

“When I looked at the amount of possessions we had per game, and that we had the lowest in the league, I was mad. This is not how our offense is supposed to run,” said Coach Mannetti in her ESPN3 post-game interview with Pam Roecker. “We need a higher sense of urgency, urgency to rebound, urgency on defense, and urgency on offense. So we really worked on pace, and man it paid off for us today.”

On the defensive end, Sacred Heart was able to lock down the third highest scoring offense in the NEC, holding Mount to 41 points and just 28% shooting. It was the fewest points allowed by the Pioneers since they allowed only 39 point to Central Connecticut State back in February of 2013.

Just 48 hours later, Sacred Heart would keep the momentum rolling with a 68-62 win over FDU. The Pioneers would shoot 49% for the game, converting on 11 threes, which make a grand total of 24 triples for Sacred Heart over their last two outings.


*BLACKBIRDS BACK IN THE WIN COLUMN: For the first time since December 29th against Lafayette, and for the first time this year in conference play,  LIU Brooklyn reached the win column, following a 71-61 victory over Mount St. Mary’s on Monday night. The Blackbirds, who trailed by two at halftime, managed to pull away with a 17-7 run to start the fourth quarter, opening up a double-digit lead. Freshman Brandy Thomas produced a monster game, recording a career-high 36 points, to go along with 19 rebounds. The 36 points is the first 30-point game for LIU-Brooklyn since 2015 and the highest scoring game for an individual player in the entire NEC this season.

The Blackbirds will next head a couple of subway stops over to Brooklyn Heights on Saturday, where they will play St. Francis Brooklyn in a rematch of last month’s “Battle of Brooklyn” showdown, before they play host to Sacred Heart at the Barclays Center on Monday afternoon in a President’s Day matinee.  


*CHAOS ON THE HILL: In a game that featured more twists and turns than the Space Mountain ride in Disneyland, the Wagner Seahawks outlasted the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers 87-85 on a Monday night thriller atop Grimes Hill. It was a game that featured seven ties, six lead changes, and several dramatic swings of momentum along the way. Each team would manage to hold a double-digit lead, with St. Francis Brooklyn leading by as many as 15 points in the third quarter.

Down 83-82 with 1:23 to play in regulation, Wagner’s Janelle Mullen stepped to the charity stripe and converted on a pair of free throws to give the Seahawks their first lead since the final seconds of the first half. Then with 11 seconds to spare, Terrier junior Jade Johnson drove the baseline, came off her dribble, and stepped through the defender to give her team back the lead, 85-84.

Following a timeout, the Seahawks inbounded and got the ball to their leading scorer, redshirt sophomore Taylah Simmons, who connected on a shot from the lane to put the Seahawks up for good. Simmons and Johnson each produced 30 points for their respective teams, while Seahawk redshirt junior Janelle Mullen added a career high 20 points off of the bench.

The Seahawks own a record over .500 in NEC play after 11 games for the first time since 2003-04 and find themselves sitting at fifth place in the NEC standings, just one game outside of the top four. After four straight years finishing at the bottom of the league, and forecasted to finish in 10th place once again in the preseason coaches poll this year, the Seahawks continue to open eyes, turn heads, and win games.

Stay tuned for a special feature on the Seahawks next week here in the #NECWBB Fast Break column on the NEC Overtime! Blog.     


*SFU’S MEGA-POWERS MEET: Here is a fun exchange between myself and my broadcast partner Pam Roecker during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s ESPN3 broadcast…


Craig: I saw Saint Francis U, they tweeted out a picture of Jess Kovatch and Jess Zinobile sitting and talking to each other, I can only imagine…

Pam: That’s almost 5,000 career points

Craig: Yeah, I can only imagine what that conversation was like

Pam: Probably a one-on-one challenge knowing Zinobile


For the first time ever, the top two scorers in NEC history converged in the same place and at the same time on Saturday afternoon as NEC Hall of Famer Jess Zinobile returned home to Loretto to be honored as part of SFU’s “Legends Night” and 50 year celebration of women’s athletics at Saint Francis. Zinobile’s 18 year NEC scoring record of 2,338 career points was surpassed this past December by current SFU senior Jess Kovatch. In a special on-court ceremony prior to Saturday’s game against Central Connecticut State, Zinobile was honored with a tribute video and the unveiling of her #22 jersey proudly hanging on the wall of DeGol Arena.


For more on Zinobile, the ceremony, and some striking similarities between Zinobile and Kovatch’s respective roads to Loretto, check out this article written by Cory Giger in the Lock Haven Express

http://www.lockhaven.com/sports/local-sports/2019/02/lock-haven-high-school-grad-jess-zinobile-honored-by-saint-francis-for-brilliant-career/



A LOOK AHEAD


Saturday, February 16, 2019
LIU Brooklyn at St. Francis Brooklyn, 1pm
Central Connecticut at Wagner, 1pm (ESPN+)
Robert Morris at Mount St. Mary’s, 1pm
Saint Francis U at Fairleigh Dickinson, 2pm
Sacred Heart at Bryant, 3pm


Monday, February 18, 2019
Central Connecticut at St. Francis Brooklyn, 1pm
Sacred Heart at LIU Brooklyn, 2pm
Wagner at Mount St. Mary’s, 7pm
Robert Morris at Saint Francis U, 7pm (ESPN3)
Fairleigh Dickinson at Bryant, 7pm



GAME OF THE WEEK PREVIEW:
2/18/19 – Robert Morris at Saint Francis U, 7pm (ESPN3)


In a rematch of last season’s NEC Championship Game, the Robert Morris Colonials are set to return to DeGol Arena in Loretto for a sure-to-be-epic showdown with the Saint Francis Red Flash. The President’s Day marquee matchup will tip at 7pm on Monday night on ESPN3 with myself and Pam Roecker on the call.

In 2018, the Keystone State rivals first met up in mid-January, with both still unbeaten in conference play. Megan Smith connected on a three pointer as time expired to give the Colonials a momentous win. Three weeks later, in the rematch, Jess Kovatch caught fire in the third quarter with six made threes, to lead the Red Flash to a 68-47 win. The season would finish with both teams tied at 16-2 atop the league standings. After all of the tiebreakers were exhausted, the final regular season RPI rankings ended up deciding the top seed in last year’s NEC Tournament, with the Red Flash just edging out the Colonials.

When they eventually met up for a third time, in the deciding Championship Game, the Red Flash used the home court to their advantage. They slowly pulled away in the second half, on their way to a 66-56 win and their record 12th tournament title.

Fast forward to the present day, both teams lost key components from the squads that met up in last year’s final, but both teams still find themselves operating at a championship level in 2019. Robert Morris has won 11 straight to start conference play, and has already wrapped up a postseason berth.

We’ve been talking about RMU’s defense all season, and just like a boa constrictor coiling around its prey, the Colonials defense has gotten more and more suffocating over time. Robert Morris stands top 20 in the nation in scoring defense (55.3ppg allowed), top 30 in turnovers forced (20.5 per game), and top 60 in field goal percentage defense (37.1%). RMU boasts the sixth best turnover rate in the country, turning opponents over at a 25.4% clip. With just league games serving as the sample size, RMU has been even more impressive, allowing only 49.5 points per game and 32.9% shooting, while forcing 20.1 turnovers per game.  

Robert Morris will need to rely heavily on their defense going up against a Red Flash team that can score and shoot very well. In NEC play, SFU leads the league with 77.2 points per game and is third at 43.8% shooting.

Offensively, while the Colonials are balanced, they are not that explosive. There was a four game stretch at the start of conference play where RMU reached 70 or more points four straight outings, including a season-high mark of 89 points against LIU Brooklyn. However, since that game, the Colonials have not scored over 70, and have only averaged 62.7 points per game.

They do shoot at a high percentage, thanks to what can be a dominating post game with Nneka Ezeigbo, Nadege Pluviose, and Ire Ozzy-Momodu. Over the last seven games, RMU has been either been very close to, or over, 40% shooting for the game with 29.4 points in the paint. SFU’s improved zone defense and Courtney Zezza trying to defend the paint will be an interesting matchup to watch on Monday.  

For Saint Francis, they’ve been a team in flux most of the early season, but it appears they’ve finally figured things out. The reigning champs once again look like the team that cut down the nets at the end of last season, coming into the weekend having won their last five in a row.

After Joe Haigh look a leave of absence two games into the season, which resulted in Susan Robinson-Fruchtl taking over the reins, SFU went through a series of abrupt changes, such as slowing down their offensive tempo a bit. Last season, the Red Flash averaged 79.8 possessions per 40 minutes (3rd in the nation), which led to 79.3 points per game (17th in the nation). This season, the numbers have taken a small dip, 75.8 possessions per 40 minutes and 73.6 points per game, however SFU is just as, if not more, efficient. Their shooting percentage and effective FG% have both increased and the team is sharing the basketball much better and more balanced, highlighted by 31 assists in a single game against Wagner back on January 28th.  

The team has also pulled back on their pressing with more of zone defense. These tweaks are changes that usually would take much of an entire offseason or pre-season to implement, but the Red Flash have had to pick them up on the fly. During their current five game win streak, SFU’s offensive numbers have been stellar: 145-298, 48.7% FG%…57-145, 39.3% 3pt%…87.2ppg.

Finally, we come to Jess Kovatch, who will always be a factor and draw a ton of attention, as she leads the league and stands eighth in the country in scoring, at 22.1 points per game. While RMU has shut down some fantastic scorers, they’ve had trouble locking down Kovatch in year’s past. In seven career games against Robert Morris, Kovach averages 25.4 points on 42.3% shooting. Last year, in particular, RMU didn’t have an answer for Kovatch, as she went off for 34.3 points over the three meetings. For the most part, RMU would start with Jocelynne Jones on Kovatch and eventually they would bring Nina Augustin and other guards on her as Kovatch started to heat up. It will be interesting to see how Coach Buscaglia and the Colonials decide to match up against Kovatch this time around.   

It will once again be the irresistible force going up against the immovable object in a key Keystone State collision on Monday night. The Colonials will first travel to Mount St. Mary’s on Saturday afternoon, looking to equal the 2003 and 2004 Red Flash, the 2009 Pioneers, and the 2013 Quinnipiac Bobcats as NEC teams since 2000 to start a conference season 12-0. Meanwhile, in a little bit of a scheduling quirk, the Red Flash will have to trek all the way down to the Garden State for a one-game road trip, a Saturday afternoon game against FDU, before taking the long bus ride back up to Loretto to prepare to host RMU.

A win over Saint Francis would get Robert Morris one step closer to assuring that this time around, any postseason meeting would take place in their own gym. Depending on how Saturday goes, a win could also open up a three, four, or five game edge over the Red Flash in the standings. For Saint Francis, they will look to stay hot on the trail of the Colonials for the regular season title race and also keep pace with Sacred Heart for the #2 spot in the standings. A SFU win could also possibly clinch a playoff spot for the Red Flash for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons. These two teams will meet up again in Moon Township to close out the year on the final day of the regular season on Thursday, March 7th.    



THREE STARS

*For the games of February 9-11, 2019   


HONORABLE MENTIONS: Haley Connors, BRY…Olivia Dabney, SHU…Kat Haines, SHU…Adrianne Hagood, SHU…Michaela Harrison, MSM…Jade Johnson, SFBK…Ally Lassen, SFBK… Candice Leatherwood, SHU…Amy O’Neill, SFBK…Courtney Zezza, SFU


THREE: Jess Kovatch, SR (SFU): Jess Kovatch keeps doing Jess Kovatch things. Coming off back to back Player of the Week honors, the reigning NEC Player of the Year recorded a total of 57 points in her two games, her highest scoring conference weekend of the season. Kovatch is second in the nation in three point field goals made per game and is second in NCAA history in career made threes.


TWO: Taylah Simmons, R-SO (WC): Simmons and Kovatch swap places this week in my ‘Three Stars’ with Simmons moving up to number two thanks to a monster game on Monday night that saw the Seahawks upend the Terriers. After 22 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday at LIU Brooklyn, Simmons recorded a season high 30 points, along with 12 rebounds against St. Francis Brooklyn. Her bucket in the lane with eight seconds to go would prove to be the game winner, leading the Seahawks to their first three game win streak since 2014-15. The redshirt sophomore has strung together three straight double-doubles to increase her total up to six on the season.


ONE: Brandy Thomas, FR (LIU): The initial reaction from her head coach, Stephanie Del Preore, who was caught on audio talking to herself while first catching a glance of the stat sheet prior to the start of her post-game interview on NEC Front Row, pretty much said it all: “Holy crap, 36 and 19, Brandy had a day!” On Monday night against Mount St. Mary’s LIU freshman Brandy Thomas had one of the most impressive outings in the entire conference this season. Her 36 points and 19 rebounds not only established personal career highs, but was the top individual scoring game this season in the league, helping lead the Blackbirds to their first conference win of the year. Thomas recorded double-doubles in both games played this past weekend, her ninth and tenth double-doubles of the season.



STAT OF THE WEEK


*On Monday night, SFU’s Jessica Kovatch is set to play in her 11th, and what could end up being her final, ESPN3 NEC game. Kovatch has risen to the occasion and put on a show just about every time the national broadcast cameras have come her way. In her career, Kovatch averages 28.1 points per game on 44.7% shooting and 43.2% from behind the arc in ESPN3 broadcasted conference games. Just as impressive, is her team’s 9-1 record and current eight-game NEC on ESPN3 win streak, with the Red Flash’s last ESPN3 loss against a league opponent coming back in Kovatch’s freshman year, a 92-71 semifinal setback against Sacred Heart.


A very special thanks this week to Mount head coach Maria Marchesano and senior guard Juliette Lawless. Be sure to join us back here at the NEC Overtime! Blog next Wednesday, February 20th for a brand new WBB Fast Break column, as we sit down with the Wagner Seahawks and discuss their surprising start and run towards a playoff berth for the first time since 2014.

#NECWBB FAST BREAK 2/6/19

STARTING LINEUP: MID-SEASON AWARDS


Nine games of league play have come and gone and now just nine games remain until we get to the “Madness” that is the NEC Women’s Basketball Tournament coming up in March. As teams prepare to return to the courts this weekend for the first time in a week to begin the second half of their conference schedule, we wanted to take a moment to look at the landscape here at the halfway point and try to narrow down some of the top candidates for the end-of-the-year awards. Not necessarily to pick out specific mid-season winners, but to shine a light on the few players who we should be talking about and keeping an eye on, for each category, here in the second half.

With about a month to go, and still plenty of basketball left to play until the NEC coaches officially cast their ballots to make the final decisions, here are some players who, based on their first half play, probably should be in the conversation for the NEC awards come season’s end…


BRENDA REILLY NEC WBB COACH OF THE YEAR

At this rate, Robert Morris head coach Charlie Buscaglia is going to need to get a whole new wing built onto his house just to store all of his Coach of the Year awards. In two years as the Colonials head coach, Buscaglia took home Coach of the Year honors both seasons, becoming the third coach in NEC women’s basketball history to win the award in consecutive campaigns. In 2017, RMU won 22 games and the NEC Championship. In 2018, Buscaglia led RMU to a program record 25 wins and an appearance in the WNIT. While no coach has ever won the honor three straight years, Coach B is making an incredible case to be the first. In 2019, his team has been focused, consistent, balanced, and especially dominant on the defensive side, on their way to a perfect 9-0 league start.

Also to be strongly considered should be St. Francis Brooklyn’s Linda Cimino. In just her first season, Coach Cim has St. Francis Brooklyn at 12 wins overall (One win shy of matching their total from all of last year), and 6-3 in conference, which is good for a share of second place. She successfully inserted her up-tempo system, leading the Terriers to stand atop the league in scoring. She took a solid core group of returning players and have them putting up their best numbers. In addition, her arrival to Brooklyn Heights helped lead Ebony Horton and Dominique Ward to the program, who have both been key contributors to the Terriers 2019 success.

Finally, a third mid-season contender would be Jessica Mannetti, who won Coach of the Year back in 2016. Mannetti’s Pioneers burst out to a 6-0 start in league play before dropping their last three. It can be a blessing to have such a veteran roster at your disposal, but also a challenge to keep them learning and improving each day. After spending time with Sacred Heart for our column last week, I could see firsthand that Coach Mannetti has done a great job putting an emphasis on her players getting better each day and being great teammates, leading to very strong team chemistry and a great team culture.  


ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

My mid-season All-Rookie Team, and the top five contenders for Rookie of the Year at the halfway point, would look like this (in no particular order):


-Michaela Harrison, MSM (12.4pts, 2.9reb, 2.4asst)
-Ebony Horton, SFBK (8.7pts, 3.4reb, 1.5asst)
-Brandy Thomas, LIU (12.1pts, 8.9reb, 1.5asst)
-Isabella Posset, RMU (7.9pts, 2.7reb, 2.7asst)
-Emilija Krista Grava, WC (11.1pts, 5.8reb)


LIU Brooklyn’s Brandy Thomas came out of the gate super strong, recording a double-double in her first seven straight games to start her career, and averaging a double-double for most of the season. Thomas currently leads the Blackbirds in rebounding and is second on her team in scoring behind a Rookie of the Year contender from a year ago, Jeydah Johnson.

While Emilija Krista Grava has missed the last three games for the Seahawks, her numbers from the entirety of the first half of the season give her a well-deserved seat at the mid-season All-Rookie table. The Wagner freshman won an early-season Rookie of the Week honor back in November and has averaged 12 points over her last eight games played, including a career high 19 points on January 14th against FDU.

When RMU sophomore Megan Callahan went down earlier this season due to injury, freshman Isabella Posset stepped up into her place and the Colonials haven’t missed a beat. Since entering the starting lineup in mid-December, Posset is second on the team, averaging 8.8 points per game. The Beaver, PA product is a three-time NEC Rookie of the Week, and leads the 9-0 Colonials in minutes played and assists, while standing second in steals and blocks.

Finally, Mount’s Michaela Harrison is a four time NEC Rookie of the Week, and leads all freshmen in scoring this year with 12.4 points per game.  After hitting a small “freshman wall” in December, Harrison made the proper adjustments, and has been on a tear. Harrison reached the halfway mark in NEC play riding an eight game streak of games with double-digit scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game during that run, and is coming off of an afternoon in which she tied a program record with eight made threes in a single game.

Harrison holds a four to three lead over Posset in Rookie of the Week’s this season. Keeping an eye on the weekly honor over the next month could end up providing a major clue as to who will end up with this award at season’s end. The last time a player had the most Rookie of the Week nods during the season but did not win the Rookie of the Year award was in 2013 when Wagner’s Jordyn Peck tied RMU’s Ashley Ravelli for the most, and Ravelli ended up taking home the honor.


MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Most Improved Player is the NEC’s newest award, first awarded during the 2015-16 season. It’s also one of the most difficult to forecast at the halfway point, since there could be a chance that the outstanding improvement that would merit winning this award is either in the process of happening or hasn’t fully materialized yet. However, three players who we can point to at this time who are almost assured of at least being in the final discussion are SFU’s Haley Thomas, St. Francis Brooklyn’s Ally Lassen, and Wagner’s Taylah Simmons.

Simmons enjoyed a solid redshirt-freshman campaign last year, finishing third on the Seahawks in points and assists. This year Simmons has stepped up to take over the lead role, leading the team with 14.4 points per game. In league play, she has been even better. Simmons ranks third in the league with 18.9 points per game against NEC foes, with only Jess Kovatch and Jade Johnson ahead of her.

Lassen played in 23 games last year as a freshman, but only averaged five minutes a game and scored 11 total points for the entire season. This year, Lassen has contributed 8.8 points and 5.1 rebounds, making the most of her increased opportunities under Coach Cimino, averaging 17 minutes more court time. The Point Pleasant, NJ native was a frequent target for Amy O’Neill to feed in the post and lead to the basket back on January 21st in the Battle of Brooklyn, where Lassen netted 16 points.

Last year, Haley Thomas played 22 games with 14 minutes per game off of the bench for the NEC champion Red Flash, averaging 3.4 points and 3.6 rebounds. Thomas has grown in confidence with a larger role this year and has been a versatile weapon for interim head coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl, joining the starting lineup back on December 15th and averaging 11.6 points per game since. Thomas exploded for a career high 23 points against LIU back on January 12th, and over the last four games, she has been a double-digit scorer, averaging 15.8. Not to mention, Thomas has been nearly automatic from the free throw line this year, going 50-52 (96.2%), which would be second best in the country, however she falls just a few attempts shy of qualification.

One other interesting case to explore would be Sacred Heart’s Kat Haines who already won Most Improved Player and was in the Player of the Year conversation back in 2017. Last year, Haines battled injury and saw her level of play take a small dip from the outstanding year prior. However, as Coach Mannetti told us last week, this year Haines has stepped out of her comfort zone more than ever, been more vocal, and mentally tough. The SHU grad student is producing the best numbers of her career with 15.9 points and 9.1 rebounds. You could make the case the jump from where she was last year to the level of play she has been at this season is definitely ‘most improved’ worthy, however I’m not sure how receptive voters would be to vote for the same person to be Most Improved Player twice in a three year span. It would be an interesting conversation to have nonetheless.    


DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Defensive Player of the Year is always a difficult award to forecast, since it all depends what you are looking at. Steals? Blocks? Rebounds? On the ball defensive skills that don’t show up in the stat sheet? Looking at each one of those categories could produce a different name.

To start, without question, Robert Morris has been the best defensive team, however the whole team can’t win the award. The best defensive player on the best defensive team is quite possibly Nneka Ezeigbo who leads the team in rebounding, blocks, and steals. If you look elsewhere, FDU’s Natalie Zamora, Wagner’s Nakylia Carter, and St. Francis Brooklyn’s Amy O’Neill are among the league leaders in steals, while SFU’s Courtney Zezza and SHU’s Katherine Haines top the leaderboard in blocks.

After speaking with several coaches over the last two weeks about the best defensive player(s) in the league, this seems to be the most ‘up-for-grabs’ award going into the second half of the season, with no clear consensus as there has been the last two years with Ace Harrison.  


PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Selecting the first team All-NEC and the top five candidates for Player of the Year through the first half of conference play seem to be a pretty easy choice. As always, someone else (like a Nneka Ezeigbo, for example) could enter into the discussion with an incredible second half run, but for the most part, these are your top contenders for the NEC’s top individual honor so far (in no particular order):


-Jess Kovatch, SFU (22.1ppg, 3.5reb, 1.7asst)
-Jade Johnson, SFBK (18.8ppg, 5.1reb, 1.1asst)
-Katherine Haines, SHU (15.9ppg, 9.1reb)
-Sydney Holloway, BRY (17.7ppg, 12.2reb)
-Juliette Lawless, MSM (18.2ppg, 4.4reb, 3.5asst)


If the middle of the conference season was two weeks ago when Sacred Heart was 6-0 and Kat Haines was coming off a triple-double and her 1,000th career point, she would have been the leader in the clubhouse, however her and her team’s struggles over the last three games have allowed other candidates to step up and state their case. This fluidity over just the last two weeks perfectly illustrates how up-for-grabs this award will be in the second half, possibly coming down to the final weekend of games.

One such candidate who has improved their case over the last two weeks is the reigning NEC Player of the Year Jess Kovatch. With Saint Francis operating a slightly different tempo on offense than last year, Kovatch’s numbers aren’t as strong, however numbers not as strong for Jess Kovatch are still pretty outstanding when compared to others. The NEC’s all-time leading scorer has led SFU in scoring the last 16 straight games, and over the last two weeks has averaged 29 points per game, including back to back 30 point performances. While winning consecutive Player of the Year honors is rare, it has happened three times, most recently in 2013-14 with Artemis Spanou.

Jade Johnson stands second in scoring, behind Kovatch, but has been more efficient, making 44% of her field goals and 45.5% of all threes. Holloway is the only NEC player currently averaging a double-double, while leading the NEC in rebounding with 12.2 per game. Finally, Lawless has been a top three scorer, while guiding a young Mountaineer team to their greatest start to a season in quite some time.


The second half of conference play gets underway on Saturday afternoon, February 9th. The actual NEC award winners for 2019 will be announced prior to the start of the NEC Tournament in early March. Still plenty of basketball left to decide who will be #NECElite for 2019 and walk away with the official hardware! 



#NECWBB NEWS AND NOTES


*WHERE THEY STAND: The Robert Morris Colonials became the ninth NEC team since the turn of the century to start a conference season 9-0 when they defeated Fairleigh Dickinson 63-43 last Saturday. The Colonials are the second NEC team to begin 9-0 in back to back seasons, behind the Saint Francis Red Flash who started three straight seasons 9-0 from 2002-04.

The Colonials, who are in search of their third straight regular season championship and fourth in the last six years, have opened up a three game lead at the top of the standings. Believe it or not, Robert Morris will already have a shot to become the first team to officially punch their ticket into the 2019 Northeast Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament this weekend based on their results against Bryant and Central Connecticut, as well as other results from around the league.

With their overtime victory at Sacred Heart last weekend, St. Francis Brooklyn forced a three way tie for second place in the standings, with the Terriers, Pioneers, and Red Flash all even at 6-3 in league play. The Red Flash have won three straight to make up ground, taking advantage of a Pioneer three game slide.

Two games outside of the top four, sit Mount St. Mary’s, Bryant, and Wagner, who are all tied at 4-5. The trio is only game ahead of Central Connecticut and Fairleigh Dickinson, who are tied at 3-6 for the eighth and final playoff position.


*THE ONE AND ONLY: On Saturday afternoon in Emmitsburg, MD, Saint Francis Red Flash senior Jessica Kovatch collected the only real notable Northeast Conference scoring record that was still left out there for her to achieve. With her fourth point of the game, coming in the first quarter on a free throw, Kovatch surpassed former Wagner men’s basketball star Terrance Bailey as the NEC’s all-time leading scorer.

Bailey, who played for Wagner from 1983-87 and earned a place in the NEC Hall of Fame, recorded 2,591 career points, holding on to the top spot in the league record books for the last 30-plus years. Kovatch now has accumulated 2,622 career points, more than any student-athlete who has suited up for a Northeast Conference basketball game over the last 38 years, and still has (at least) nine games in her career left to play.

The Red Flash will return to action coming up on Saturday at home against Central Connecticut State. The game will feature the special jersey ceremony honoring the former top scorer in NEC women’s basketball history, 2010 NEC Hall of Famer, Jess Zinobile. The ceremony will be part of SFU’s ongoing celebration of 50 years of female athletics at Saint Francis.   


*TERRIER TRIPLE-DOUBLE: On Saturday afternoon, Amy O’Neill helped lead St. Francis Brooklyn to an overtime win at Sacred Heart by recording 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in 44 minutes of action – recording the first triple-double in St. Francis Brooklyn women’s basketball history. The senior point guard has flirted with the feat on several occasions this year, including: 9pts/11reb/8asst vs. LIU, 20pts/9reb/9asst vs. SHU, 15pts/8reb/8asst vs. Albany, and 12pts/11reb/9asst vs. Loyola.

O’Neill’s triple-double becomes the 12th in league history, and the second recorded this season. Ironically, it was in the previous Terrier/Pioneer game back on January 19th when Sacred Heart grad student Katherine Haines had 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 blocked shots, recording the first triple-double in Pioneer history.

2019 becomes the second season in NEC history which has seen multiple triple-doubles. The first, back in 2008, saw Robert Morris’ Chinata Nesbit record both of the triple-doubles herself, including one in the NEC Tournament.


*BLUE DEVIL BUZZER BEATER: Central Connecticut State won their second straight game and third game in their last five, in thrilling fashion on Saturday with a buzzer-beating 66-65 victory against Bryant. Trailing by double figures entering the fourth quarter, Central managed to chip away at the deficit and find themselves tied at 61 with two minutes to play. Thirty seconds later, senior Kiana Patterson would give the Blue Devils their first lead since early in the third quarter with a jumper to make the score 63-61.

Bryant ended a six minute field goal drought with a Kiera Palmer three pointer to stun the Detrick Gym crowd and give Bryant back control with 18 seconds left to spare. After a Sydney Holloway steal, she was intentionally fouled. Holloway made one of two from the line to give Bryant a 65-63 advantage. Hannah Scanlan was then fouled with five seconds left, but she came up empty on a pair of free throw attempts, keeping Central alive, and setting the stage for the game-ending dramatics.

Following a timeout, Blue Devil senior Andi Lydon inbounded to Kiana Patterson in the left corner, whose three-ball was off the mark, but caromed hard off of the rim and back out to the top of the key, back to Lydon. Lydon quickly flipped the ball over to her right and junior guard Bruna Vila Artigues, who banked in the trifecta as time expired, giving the Blue Devils the 66-65 win.

Artigues scored a career high 13 points on 5-7 shooting, and 3-4 from beyond the arc, with six rebounds and four assists. The Blue Devils will look for their first three game win streak of the season when they travel to Pennsylvania to meet the reigning champion SFU, a team they beat by 11 points last month.

For more on Artigues, and her journey from Spain, to Wyoming, and now to New Britain, CT, check out this great article and video feature from NBC CT’s Gabrielle Lucivero…



A LOOK AHEAD


Saturday, February 9, 2019

(4-5) Mount St. Mary’s at (6-3) Sacred Heart, 12pm (ESPN3)
(3-6) Fairleigh Dickinson at (6-3) St. Francis Brooklyn, 1pm
(4-5) Wagner at (0-9) LIU Brooklyn, 2pm
(3-6) Central Connecticut at (6-3) Saint Francis U, 4pm
(4-5) Bryant at (9-0) Robert Morris, 7pm (ESPN3)


Monday, February 11, 2019

(3-6) Fairleigh Dickinson at (6-3) Sacred Heart, 6pm
(4-5) Bryant at (6-3) Saint Francis U, 6pm
(3-6) Central Connecticut at (9-0) Robert Morris, 7pm
(4-5) Mount St. Mary’s at (0-9) LIU Brooklyn, 7pm
(6-3) St. Francis Brooklyn at (4-5) Wagner, 7pm


GAME(S) OF THE WEEK PREVIEW:
2/9/19 – Mount St. Mary’s at Sacred Heart, 12pm &

Bryant at Robert Morris, 7pm (ESPN3)


For the first time in a week, Northeast Conference women’s basketball teams will return to the hardwood on Saturday to tip off the second half of the league schedule. Saturday’s slate will feature a national broadcast double-header, starting in Fairfield at noon with Mount St. Mary’s visiting Sacred Heart and finishing up in the Keystone State as Bryant meets Robert Morris at 7pm.

The Mountaineers and Pioneers will be a matchup featuring two teams who had a ton of momentum, lost it, and now will be trying to get it back. Sacred Heart had won six straight to start NEC play before dropping their last three in a row, including last weekend’s home overtime loss to St. Francis Brooklyn. Mount had won three straight, and four out of five, before falling to Saint Francis U at home last Saturday afternoon on ESPN3.

One fascinating element to watch for is with the pace of play. Mount averages the most possessions per 40 minutes in the NEC at 72.8, while Sacred Heart averages the least at 67.9. The Pioneers want to move faster and should have the opportunity on Saturday. The Pioneers have played smart and efficient, only turning the ball over 13.8 times per game (fewest in NEC) and are sporting the second ranked scoring defense in the league, only giving up 62.8 points per game. To contrast, the Mount score 69 points per game, while shooting at 40%. The Mountaineers, with their extra possessions gained by moving at their pace, also attempt 26.3 three pointers per game, which stands as second most in the NEC.

“They play really fast, and one of the things that we want to challenge ourselves to do is continue to play faster,” said Pioneers head coach Jessica Mannetti. “The more possessions we have the opportunity to have, the more we will be able to score.”

After averaging 68.3 points on 40.9% shooting during their six game run to start league play, the Pioneers have only managed 55.7 points on 33.1% shooting during their current three game skid.

Another noticeable difference is Sacred Heart boasting the experience factor of three grad students, two seniors, and no freshman, while the Mount is almost entirely made up of underclassmen. The major exception is Mount’s standout senior Juliette Lawless, who stands third in the league in scoring, and will look to bounce back after a disappointing eight point performance last week against SFU.

“Sacred Heart, in my mind, has all the pieces,” commented Mount head coach Maria Marchesano. “They have post players that can play inside and out, dynamic guards, shooters, and they have experience. There is a lot to look out for when you are playing Sacred Heart.” 

SHU’s overtime loss to the Terriers at the Pitt Center last weekend ended a run of nine straight home wins in conference play. Sacred Heart will enter the weekend holding a two game lead over Mount in the league standings. Saturday’s game will be broadcast live on ESPN3 beginning at noon with myself and Pam Roecker on the call from the Pitt Center.   

But the action doesn’t end there! To close out the evening, longtime rivals, the Bryant Bulldogs and Robert Morris Colonials, will renew acquaintances at the North Athletic Complex in Moon Township. 

This will be a rematch from a game back on January 19th in Smithfield, won by the Colonials 60-57. Leading by two, and with 33 seconds left, RMU’s Nadege Pluviose blocked Bryant’s Sydney Holloway’s game tying attempt. After RMU split a pair of free throw tries, Bryant had one final shot to extend the game and force overtime, but Holloway’s three point attempt swirled around the rim and just out as time expired.

The Colonials will be looking to match the 2016 Bulldogs with the fifth best start to a conference season since 2000 at 10-0. That 2016 season was the third year, in what would go on to be a four consecutive year stretch, where Bryant would have their season end at the hands of Robert Morris in the NEC Tournament.

Robert Morris continues to lead the league, and stand among the nation’s leaders, in scoring defense (55.9 points per game), field goal percentage defense (37.2%), and turnovers forced (20.4 per game). On offense, nine different Colonials have taken turns leading the team in scoring, however as of late, Nneka Ezeigbo has been a growing force. Going back to the previous meeting with Bryant, where she led the team with 12 points and eight rebounds, Ezeigbo has averaged 13 points and 9.6 rebounds over her last five outings.

“They always play hard and have some tough players to deal with,” said Colonial head coach Charlie Buscaglia. “But always when you know you’re going to play Bryant, you know they are going to be well coached, they are going to play hard, and they always have some pieces that are difficult to deal with.”

Bryant has suffered three single possession losses in league play this year, including a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer last weekend at Central Connecticut. Sydney Holloway has recorded three straight double-doubles, and 13 overall on the season, for the Bulldogs.

The veteran crew of Paul Dottino and Karen Hall will be on the call from Moon Township, with the tip time set for 7pm on ESPN3.



THREE STARS

*For the games of February 2, 2019   


HONORABLE MENTIONS: Michaela Harrison, MSM…Sydney Holloway, BRY…Jade Johnson, SFBK…Candice Leatherwood, SHU…Kiana Patterson, CCSU…Haley Thomas, SFU…Bruna Vila Artigues, CCSU


THREE: Taylah Simmons, R-SO (WC): Wagner redshirt-sophomore Taylah Simmons has been on a tear since the calendar turned over to 2019, averaging 18.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in league play. Simmons’ scoring average in NEC play ranks third in the league. After recording a career high 28 points two Saturday’s ago against Mount St. Mary’s, Simmons led the Seahawks with 27 points and 15 rebounds this week against LIU Brooklyn, with 19 of her 27 points coming in the second half.


TWO: Jess Kovatch, SR (SFU): Red Flash senior Jess Kovatch once again rose to the occasion in the ESPN3 spotlight on Saturday, scoring a season-high 34 points against Mount St. Mary’s. Kovatch struggled from the field early, but still managed to surpass Wagner’s Terrance Bailey for the NEC’s all-time scoring mark on a free-throw in the first quarter. Overall, Kovatch cashed in on 14 of her season high 16 free throw attempts. She would go on to shoot 7-17 from the field on the afternoon, with six of the seven made field goals coming from beyond the arc. Kovatch continues to pace the league, and sit top 10 in the nation, averaging 22.1 points per game on the year and 24.8 points per game in conference play.


ONE: Amy O’Neill, SR (SFBK): After several close calls earlier this year (9 points, 11 rebounds, & 8 assists vs. LIU…20 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists vs. SHU…15 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists vs. Albany…and 12 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists vs. Loyola) Amy O’Neill finally recorded a triple double on Saturday in the Terriers overtime win against Sacred Heart. O’Neill played 44 minutes and finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, including the game winning dish to Dominique Ward in the final seconds of overtime. The triple double is the first in St. Francis Brooklyn history, 12th in Northeast Conference history, and second recorded in the NEC this season. 



STAT OF THE WEEK


*Three out of the last four years, a team that sported a sub-.500 NEC record at the halfway point of league play, managed to go on and advance to, at least, the NEC tournament semifinals: 2015 St. Francis Brooklyn, 2017 Bryant, and 2018 Sacred Heart


Join us back here at the NEC Overtime! Blog next Wednesday, February 13th for a brand new WBB Fast Break column, featuring Mount St. Mary’s senior guard Juliette Lawless.

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