#NECWBB FAST BREAK: 1/9/19
STARTING LINEUP: JESS KOVATCH – JOURNEY TO THE TOP
December 16, 2018 – Seattle, WA
After being held to just six points in the first half of a Sunday early-afternoon, non-conference game against Montana at the Husky Classic in Seattle, Jessica Kovatch and her Saint Francis Red Flash started the third quarter against the Grizzlies trailing by nine. After a 24 point performance the day before against Boise State on 9-15 shooting and 6-11 from three, the SFU senior started the afternoon just 14 points shy of surpassing NEC Hall of Famer Jess Zinobile’s 2,338 career points and her 18 year run as the NEC’s all-time leading scorer.
Just past the midway point of the third quarter, with the Grizzlies starting to pull away, Kovatch connected on a jumper in the paint to end a 12-4 Montana run. 8 points down, 6 more to go. Three minutes later, with 1:37 remaining in the third quarter, Kovatch calmly drained a three to pull SFU within 14 of the Grizzlies. 11 points down, 3 more to go…
Now before we can continue any further, we must take a moment to pause and look back. A final destination can’t really be as satisfying without a special journey to get there. Before SFU senior guard Jess Kovatch was at this point in time, standing at the brink of NEC history, her journey to this moment was anything but ordinary. This is the story of how a player who didn’t receive that much attention from Division 1 programs coming out of high school and wasn’t even considered the best freshman on her own team during her first workouts, persevered with an incredible work ethic and desire to improve, to go on to have one of the most illustrious careers in league history, become a league champion, and eventually take her place as the league’s all-time leading scorer…
Growing up in Philipsburg, NJ, Jess Kovatch developed a passion for sports at a young age, but even at a very early stage in her life, it was basketball that always stood out.
“When I was younger I played a lot of sports, so I was into athletics already,” said Kovatch. “I guess I was just into basketball more. I started AAU probably around 4th grade with the local high school team. I wasn’t really old enough to play, you had to be in 5th grade, but they allowed me to play as a 4th grader, so I kind of ‘played up,’ with older girls a little bit when I was younger. I always played with boys at the local basketball courts too…and from that I always had a passion for it.”
When Kovatch reached Philipsburg High School, things started to take off. During her junior year in 2014, Kovatch became the first junior in school history to score 500 points in a season and she reached the 1,000-point plateau for her career. She also set the school record in three-point field goals, and was named the Express-Times Player of the Year (an honor that goes to the best girls’ basketball player in the Lehigh Valley area of NJ and PA.)
At this time, Kovatch was developing her unique shot and scoring style thanks to a great support system of AAU and high school coaches, as well as her dad.
“As I got into high school, I realized I’m actually kind of good at this. My dad really helped me a lot when I was younger, teaching me little things. We were in the backyard, he lowered the hoop, and he took two basketballs and fit them into the hoop and said, ‘This is how big the actual hoop is.’ Because it doesn’t look that big when you’re looking at it, but he kind of showed me how big the hoop actually is, and playing with a girls ball, it’s smaller than the men’s, so if they can fit two men’s basketballs in there, you have a lot of room to work with.”
“My shot…he probably just let that go. I don’t have the traditional form. He wasn’t too concerned, but I did have a lot of concerned coaches in AAU and high school. They were just telling me, ‘You have to switch your shot in college because if you shoot too low it’s going to get blocked.’ But I was getting my shots off and I thought I had a quick enough release. I tried to change my shot when I was in high school a little bit, my senior year, just on my own. It felt really uncomfortable and I said, ‘It’s too late now,’ so I’m going to stick with it.”
Kovatch would help lead the Stateliners to a second straight Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Championship in 2014, being named MVP in the championship game. However, surprisingly and somewhat puzzling, despite the team and individual success, offers from Division 1 programs weren’t exactly flying in.
“Throughout high school I got some offers from D2 schools, D3…and I wasn’t really interested in any of the D1 schools that were contacting me. I’m by Lafayette and I’m kind of close to Lehigh too, and I was hoping they would be a little interested in me. I was kind of shocked. I figured I’m probably too small. I’m not the tallest and I’m not the biggest so I’m like, ‘this is probably why I’m not being recruited.’ It was a little nerve wracking. It hit me hard mentally, but I got over it at the end,”
One person who did take notice in Kovatch, during one of her last AAU tournaments, was Saint Francis Red Flash women’s basketball coach Joe Haigh. While Kovatch was reluctantly prepared to make alternate plans regarding her basketball future, she received an 11th hour offer from SFU.
“Saint Francis was the last offer. They were like, ‘Hey, we have a scholarship, think about it, there’s another girl that has it too, if you want to take it, take it now. You don’t have much time.’ I was talking with my parents, and I took it. I always wanted to play D1.”
With the stress of the recruiting process and selecting a college finally behind her, Kovatch finished out her high school career with another solid season, finishing as Philipsburg’s all-time leading scorer.
The small-school environment and the fast-paced tempo of Coach Haigh’s system were among the key factors that attracted Kovatch to SFU and convinced her that it would be a good fit. Upon arriving on campus that initial summer, the coaching staff didn’t quite know what they had with Kovatch yet. Kovatch took part in summer workouts when another freshman seemed to be the standout.
“We had workouts with the freshmen, and I think they noticed another player who probably they thought had more potential than I did, and I noticed it too, that they weren’t really that into me in the beginning. So I worked out a lot, especially with my shot. I know that was probably my biggest strength and they didn’t really notice that yet. I figured ‘you’re a freshman in college, you’re not going to start, maybe you play a couple of minutes at the end of the game.’ But I got an opportunity to play, and I just tried to make the most of it, and that’s when they saw I could score.”
They saw she could score right from the jump, as 47 seconds into her collegiate debut as Saint Francis took on the Cincinnati Bearcats in the fall of 2015, Kovatch netted her first career points, on what else, a three. Kovatch scored 16 points on 6-10 shooting in her debut, limited to just 16 minutes due to foul trouble. This first game would be the beginning of one of the greatest freshman seasons the NEC has ever seen, as Kovatch racked up 11 straight (and 13 overall) Rookie of the Week honors, making her the obvious choice at seasons end for the 2016 NEC Rookie of the Year. She would lead all freshman in the nation in scoring, set an NEC record for most points by a freshman, and even make a cameo in Sports Illustrated’s ‘Faces in the Crowd’ section.
“Coach Joe gave me a ton of confidence in myself,” said Kovatch about her rookie campaign. “He gave me the green light my freshman year and him having confidence in me gave me confidence in myself.”
In 2017, Kovatch put in the extra work to take her game to the next level as a sophomore. She scored her 1,000th career point, drained 110 threes, and produced a career high 45 points on a nationally broadcast game on ESPN3 against Central Connecticut. Still, Kovatch was never satisfied and continued to look for ways to get even better.
“In high school I didn’t have a basketball court to work at every day and at night time. When I came to school, the gym is open 24 hours, so why not make the most out of that? Let me just get in and practice my shot. I adjusted my school schedule so I could get in during the day, before practice, and I would even come in at night with a couple of teammates and shoot on the gun. I wanted to be good at it so I knew I had to practice. I’m never satisfied. Even if people think I had a good game, I’m always looking at the stuff that I didn’t do good or I could’ve done different.”
Last season, in addition to claiming outstanding personal accolades such as NEC Player of the Year, a league record 831 points in a single season, an NCAA record 141 made threes in a single season, and a second place finish on the NCAA’s scoring list, Kovatch earned her most prized accomplishment, a Northeast Conference Championship.
“Last year was a great team altogether. We all worked well together. We learned a lot that year. We had a pretty athletic team. We had good team chemistry. We knew what everyone was going to do and how we all played together. Winning that championship, I think that was a weight lifted off all of our shoulders. This is what we wanted. We’re never going to forget that.”
The Red Flash won 24 games in 2018, finishing their year winning their last eight straight and 15 out of their last 16 conference games, including a 66-56 win over Robert Morris in the championship game. Their team had all the pieces, from the athleticism, leadership, and defensive ability of Ace Harrison, to the control and facilitating of point guard Kaitlyn Kroll, to the blocking ability of Courtney Zezza, to the scoring of Kovatch, to the eclectic contributions from the rest of a very deep and talented roster.
“I’m looking back now saying, ‘Wow I had a really good team last year,’ and that’s probably going to be the best team I play on during my four years here.”
Now we return back to Seattle on December, 16, 2018, just a little over four years removed from signing her ‘11th hour’ letter of intent to SFU and three years removed from those first career points against Cincinnati, Kovatch sits right on the edge of history…
With 47 seconds remaining in the third quarter against Montana, Grizzlies junior McKenzie Johnston had just committed a foul, leading to a Red Flash inbounds pass from underneath the basket. Kovatch, standing in the paint, came free from her defender by moving towards the right corner, took the inbounds pass from sophomore Karson Swogger, took three dribbles, and with that quick release shot of hers (the same shot that some people thought might not work at the college level), drained a three for her 2,339th career point, becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer. The SFU bench was sent into a frenzy, bringing a smile to Kovatch’s face as she ran back up court on defense.
“I knew going into that game, people were in my ear a little bit, ‘you need this many points.’ My assistant coach came and talked to me, telling me not to put any pressure on myself and it will come, we have so many more games, so if it doesn’t come today, you’re fine. I didn’t really put any added pressure on myself, it was just another game…but obviously the bench knew how many I needed. I hit a three and they went crazy. That was a really good feeling, just having that support and energy from my teammates. Jess (Zinobile) was a really good player, she was drafted into the WNBA, so just to have my name up there with her is an honor. It’s a great feeling, and to have the scoring record…I’m just setting it up for someone else to come and break my record.”
With still a full senior season of conference play to go, Kovatch can still do a ton to try and put the record way out of reach for that ‘someone else’ who comes along one day to challenge her mark. Recently, she netted her 400th career three point field goal, becoming one of only three players in NCAA history to reach 400. Following this year, Kovatch has aspirations of continuing her career at a professional level, something that seemed far away during her recruiting frustrations four years ago, but now seems like a very real possibility.
“I just want to play pro, if that means here in the states or overseas, anywhere, I don’t want to be done with basketball just yet. Anybody who wants me, I know I’ll give 100% and I’m just excited to see what I can do at the next level.”
#NECWBB NEWS AND NOTES
*INTERVIEW OUTTAKES: During my time talking to Jess Kovatch for this week’s feature article, I asked her two other questions, and got two great answers, that didn’t quite fit into the storytelling of the piece…but, I did want to make sure to pass them along:
CD: If we were going to make a Jess Kovatch highlight reel, what would be one or two shots or moments from your career that would absolutely have to be on there? What are the most memorable shots that stand out to you?
JK: It wouldn’t be a shot, it would probably be a quarter. It was the third quarter last year, we were playing Robert Morris at home and I think I had like five threes (*actually it was six) in that quarter. It was our home court, the bench was going crazy, and I felt unstoppable at that moment. (Me) having that confidence from Coach Joe, it’s incredible to see what can happen when you give one of your players this much confidence and freedom to play the way I do.
CD: How do you want to be remembered at SFU and in the NEC when your career is done?
JK: As a great teammate and great scorer. I think the threes have changed the game of basketball. Coach Joe took full advantage of that, and it’s hard to stop. He had the perfect player and I was in the perfect system to show how powerful the three-pointer can be.
Watch Kovatch’s “unstoppable” third quarter from last year vs. RMU (0:42 mark)
*NEC UNBEATENS: Four teams managed to escape the first weekend of conference play unblemished: Saint Francis U, St. Francis Brooklyn, Robert Morris, and Sacred Heart. All four teams took advantage of their home court, with all but St. Francis Brooklyn winning a pair of games in front of the home crowd. The Terriers won at home on Saturday against Wagner before going on the road and picking up a victory at Bryant. Last season only three teams (Mount, RMU, and SFU) started the season 2-0. RMU served as the league’s last remaining unbeaten, winning their first nine league games before tasting defeat.
Robert Morris: Won their NEC opener for the 14th time in the last 15 years, and begin the conference season 2-0 for the second straight year.
St. Francis Brooklyn: Won their NEC opener for the second time in three years, and begin 2-0 in conference for the first time since opening the 2013-14 season at 3-0.
Saint Francis U: Won their fourth straight NEC opener and start 2-0 in NEC play for the second straight year.
Sacred Heart: Won their first NEC opener since 2016-17 and start 2-0 against league foes for the first time since 2016-17.
*RMU DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE: The Colonials put forth a historic defensive outing on Monday night against the FDU Knights. RMU allowed a FDU score on their opening possession of the game, and that was it for the entire first quarter. The Colonials collected five steals, forced nine turnovers (against the team that committed the fewest turnovers in the league coming in), and held FDU to 1-10 shooting…in just the first quarter! The two points allowed in the first 10 minutes by RMU are the fewest since they only allowed 1 point in the first quarter last year against St. Francis Brooklyn. For the game, the Knights turned it over a total of 18 times and produced just 49 points.
Robert Morris head coach Charlie Buscaglia talked to Colonials play-by-play announcer Adam Gusky in the post-game interview on NEC Front Row about the strong showing.
“We set the tone early, that’s something that we talk about. Obviously, defensively, we came out with a lot of energy, focus, and communication.”
This strong defensive effort all came after RMU forced 22 turnovers and held Mount to just 58 points two days earlier. After wrapping up a six game homestand, the Colonials are set to take their dominant “D” on the road to Brooklyn next weekend.
*OUT IN FRONT: Robert Morris and Sacred Heart both experienced a weekend primarily from the driver’s seat, controlling the majority of their 80 minutes, across two games, of basketball. Against Mount St. Mary’s and FDU, Robert Morris held a lead for 76:25 out of their 80 minutes played, or 95% of the time. Similarly, Sacred Heart either was tied or held a lead in 76:20 out of their 80 minutes played against LIU Brooklyn and Central Connecticut.
*NEC-TV OPENER: In the first of 11 NEC women’s basketball broadcasts this year on the ESPN networks, St. Francis Brooklyn defeated the Bryant Bulldogs 60-55 on Monday night in Smithfield, RI behind a solid effort from Terrier grad student Dominique Ward with 16 points, 6 rebounds, and a career high 5 blocks. Check out the post-game recap from myself and Pam Roecker below…
Craig D’Amico & Pam Roecker recap St. Francis Brooklyn’s 60-55 win over Bryant
*20/20: Bryant’s Sydney Holloway recorded her third 20 rebound game of the season on Monday night against the Terriers. To go with the 20 boards, Holloway also produced 20 points on the evening, making it her second 20/20 game of the season. The Bulldog junior recorded 27 points and 20 rebounds in just the second game of the year, against Brown, back on November 8th. Holloway becomes the first Bulldog to record multiple 20/20 games in a single campaign.
*A SEAHAWK SPLIT: Shout out to the Seahawks, as Wagner looks to take the next step under third year head coach Heather Jacobs and make the NEC Tournament for the first time since 2014. Wagner earned a split of their first two conference games this year, falling short in a hard fought game against St. Francis Brooklyn before coming up with a huge road win at CCSU. This marks the second straight year Wagner sits at 1-1 after the opening weekend. Taylah Simmons had a great two game stretch, scoring 12 points off of the bench against the Terriers and then making her way into the starting lineup to lead the way with 19 points and 11 rebounds against Central. Head coach Heather Jacobs commented in the press conference after the game:
“Tonight’s performance was a complete team effort and something that we can build upon. It is a testament to the hard work of our players and I am proud of their effort tonight.”
Wagner will have a huge test coming up in front of them as they welcome in Sacred Heart on Saturday.
A LOOK AHEAD
Saturday, January 12, 2019
Bryant (1-1) at Mount St. Mary’s (0-2), 1pm
Robert Morris (2-0) at St. Francis Brooklyn (2-0), 1pm
Sacred Heart (2-0) at Wagner (1-1), 1pm
Saint Francis U (2-0) at LIU Brooklyn (0-2), 2pm
Central Connecticut (0-2) at Fairleigh Dickinson (0-2), 2pm
Monday, January 14, 2019
Bryant (1-1) at Sacred Heart (2-0), 6pm
Saint Francis U (2-0) at St. Francis Brooklyn (2-0), 7pm
Fairleigh Dickinson (0-2) at Wagner (1-1), 7pm
Central Connecticut (0-2) at Mount St. Mary’s (0-2), 7pm
Robert Morris (2-0) at LIU Brooklyn (0-2), 7pm
GAME OF THE WEEK PREVIEW:
1/12/19 – (2-0) Robert Morris at (2-0) St. Francis Brooklyn, 1pm (NEC FRONT ROW)
Two of the league’s four remaining conference play unbeatens will square off on Saturday afternoon at the Pope PE Center in Brooklyn Heights, NY as the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers play host to the Robert Morris Colonials. The game will have a 1 pm tip time and air live, free of charge, on NEC Front Row with the Terrier Sports Network crew of Jon Perez and Phyllis Mangina on the call.
Saturday will be a classic clash of #1 offense vs. #1 defense. The Terriers operate the #1 scoring offense (76.6 points per game) in the NEC, averaging 76 possessions per game (30th in the country). The quicker pace and the extra possessions have led to a scoring average that is about 14 points better than last year. On the other side, as mentioned in the “News and Notes” section, the RMU defense has been stifling. They’ve led the league in scoring defense three straight years, and once again find themselves in the top spot so far in 2018-19 (only allowing 58.8 points per game). The Colonials are coming off one of their best team defensive performances over the last several years last Monday night against FDU. On average, the Colonials force nearly 21 turnovers per game (turning teams over at a 25.3% rate, top 10 in the nation), while the Terriers have been turnover prone. SFBK has a turnover rate of 21.7% and commits 19.4 turnovers per game, having committed 21 turnovers in their most recent outing against Bryant.
If St. Francis Brooklyn is able to move along at their pace and convert with their consistency against RMU, the question becomes ‘Can RMU score enough to keep up with SFBK?’ Before this past weekend, the jury probably would have been out on that one. However, the Colonials have quieted some of that chatter, scoring 70 points in back to back games for the first time this season, and for the first time since last January. Their shooting percentages of 40% and 39% in the two games against Mount St. Mary’s and Fairleigh Dickinson both exceeded their team’s season shooting average entering the weekend. The Colonials are an incredible 15-0 over the last three seasons when reaching the 70 point mark.
When you look back to last year (with a grain of salt considering there will be different players and that SFBK is operating a much different offensive system under Linda Cimino this time around), both games were very low scoring. The Terriers were held to just one single point in the first quarter (an RMU program record for fewest points allowed in a quarter) and only were able to muster 36 points for the entire game in a road loss to RMU in early January. The second outing saw SFBK shoot much more efficiently than the first go-around (from 28% in January to 35% in February) as they handed Robert Morris just their second conference loss of the season. The Terriers ability to get good looks at the basket, shoot at a high percentage, and avoid turning the ball over in bunches against this RMU defense should loom large as deciding factors in Saturday’s game.
In addition, these two teams have not only been battling it out on the hardwood, they’ve also been battling it out in the classroom. St. Francis Brooklyn finished third in the nation in the WBCA Academic Top 25 poll for the 2017-18 season with a 3.749 team GPA. Their GPA finished just 0.001 point higher than the team at #4 on that list…which just so happened to be Robert Morris.
The Terriers handed the Colonials a 49-47 loss during RMU’s last visit to Brooklyn Heights last February. Saturday will mark the 45th all-time meeting between the two programs, with the Colonials leading the all-time series 43-21. In 2015, they met for the NEC Championship, as the Terriers upset the Colonials in Moon Township 77-62 to cut down the nets and earn a NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in school history.
*For the games of January 5-7, 2019
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Amy O’Neill, SFBK…Dominique Ward, SFBK…Macey Zegarowski, BRY… Nneka Ezeigbo, RMU…Karson Swogger, SFU…Adrianne Hagood, SHU…Katherine Haines, SHU…Juliette Lawless, MSM…Taylah Simmons, WC…Alayshia Dailey, WC
THREE: Jess Kovatch, SR (SFU): Kovatch’s season scoring average continues to be on the rise, with Saturday’s 31 point performance against Fairleigh Dickinson being a big help. Kovatch took 19 shots, her most of the season, connecting with 11 of them. During the game, the reigning NEC Player of the Year hit her 400th career three point field goal, becoming one of only three in NCAA history to reach that mark. Her four steals against the Knights also marked a season high. About 48 hours later against the Mount, Kovatch led all scorers with 23 points, including a big jumper with under four minutes to go to give the Red Flash the lead, and clutch free throws in the final minute to put SFU up two possessions. Kovatch led all NEC players with 54 total points on the weekend. She stands fourth in the nation with 3.92 threes per game and remains in the top 20 in the country in scoring.
TWO: Ire Ozzy-Momodu, SO (RMU): After scoring 16 points all of last season as a freshman, Ozzy-Momodu netted 27 combined points in this year’s opening conference weekend. After coming off the bench to produce a career high 17 points on Saturday against the Mountaineers, the London native nearly recorded her third double-double of the season with a 10 point, 9 rebound game on Monday night against FDU. The Colonials have made the most out of her time on the floor. In the two games this weekend, Ozzy-Momodu led the league with a 35.1% usage rate and a 25.7% rebound rate. Usage rate calculates the percentage of a team’s plays with a true outcome (FG attempt, FT attempt, or turnover) that a player is involved in while they are on the floor, while rebound rate calculates the percentage of rebounds a player collects while they are on the floor. Ozzy-Momodu recorded the 15th most total points and 8th most rebounds on the weekend despite playing a total of only 34 minutes.
ONE: Sydney Holloway, JR (BRY): Sydney Holloway had a dominant opening NEC weekend, averaging 19.5 points and 17 rebounds, to help lead the Bryant Bulldogs to a split in their two home games. On Saturday against LIU Brooklyn, Holloway collected her 9th double-double of the season, leading Bryant with 19 points and 14 rebounds. She also helped stave off a Blackbird comeback effort in the fourth quarter with the layup, with just under three minutes to go, that put the Bulldogs up for good. Then on Monday, Holloway recorded her third 20 rebound game, and second 20/20 game, of the season. Holloway’s 20 point, 20 rebound performance against the Terriers made her the first Bulldog with three 20 rebound outings in a single season. She currently ranks eighth in the nation, averaging 12.4 rebounds per game.
STAT OF THE WEEK
All five home teams were victorious on Saturday in the first full day of conference play this season. It marked the first time in 10 years, since the 2008-09 campaign, that every home team won on the first day of conference play which featured four or more games.
Many thanks to Jess Kovatch for taking the time out to chat with us for this week’s feature article. Join us back here at the NEC Overtime! Blog next Wednesday, January 16th for the next WBB “Fast Break” column. We will recap the second weekend of conference play and include a special feature on one of the NEC’s top rivalries, as LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis Brooklyn prepare to meet on Monday, January 21st in the 26th annual “Battle of Brooklyn.”