In the previous 32-year history of the Northeast Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament there have been many standout games, spectacular shots, and memorable moments…and then there was the 2014 quarter-final contest between the Saint Francis Red Flash and the Sacred Heart Pioneers. It’s a game that has to be placed in a separate category, because the NEC Tournament hadn’t seen anything like it before and hasn’t seen anything like it since.
Moments before Saturday’s opening tip against the Bryant Bulldogs, St. Francis Brooklyn senior Amy O’Neill was escorted out to center court of the Pope PE Center by her mom and her teammate, Jade Johnson, as part of the Terriers’ Senior Day festivities. About two hours later, O’Neill would return to the center of the floor for a post-game interview on NEC Front Row, following a career-high 28-point, six rebound, nine assist, and two steal performance to help lead the Terriers to a 101-77 victory. Just as she’s been all season long, O’Neill was the engine that made the team go.
O’Neill was one of seven Terrier seniors honored on the afternoon, along with Maria Palarino, Dana DiRenzo, Lorraine Hickman, Dominique Ward, Mia Ehling, and Tori Wagner.
But true to her selflessness and her personality, when asked about her individual performance in that post-game interview, O’Neill was quick to deflect the credit and turn the attention to her teammates, “What a day for all of us,” expressed O’Neill. “I’m so happy for our seniors and for our team and for people like Dana (DiRenzo) who used their opportunity today and just went for it. I’m just so happy for all of us.”
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.’”
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):
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):
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.
*THEONE 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: 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.
The Sacred Heart Pioneers women’s basketball team began NEC play this year at 6-0, one of their best starts in quite some time. One could make a case that the Pioneers are actually just picking up right where they left off last year.
Last season, the Pioneers brought six freshmen into the mix, and went through some early growing pains, getting off to a 3-8 start. However, after the first week in February, things clicked into high gear and Sacred Heart went on an incredible surge, winning six out of their final seven regular season games and advancing to at least the NEC Tournament semi-final round for the third straight season, and for the fifth time in the last seven years.
As far as the experience factor is concerned, things have completely turned around. The Pioneers now boast one of the most experienced lineups in the NEC, with no freshmen, two seniors, and three grad students on their roster.
In the Northeast Conference, there are currently six women’s basketball student-athletes listed as graduate students. As mentioned, Sacred Heart features three out of those six, with Katherine Haines, Erin Storck, and Kiana Ye all having walked last spring and currently in the midst of their graduate school programs.
Last week we had a chance to catch up with Pioneers head coach Jessica Mannetti to discuss the advantages of having such a veteran group this season and each of her three graduate students on the Pioneers roster…
On the advantages of having a veteran roster in 2018-19: “Last year with six freshmen we made a lot of freshman mistakes. Just getting the flow of the system down and being able to know how everybody plays together was a challenge. This year, having that experience under our belt, having gone to Argentina, and having practiced with each other over the summer, they were firing on all cylinders, really connecting well.”
On Katherine Haines: “She’s really taken a lot of ownership. This is the first year I’ve seen her mentally be really, really tough. She was battling injury last year, was Most Improved Player of the league two years ago, so she works. She wants to get better, she wants to help her team, but she doesn’t ever really want to be in the spotlight. But this year, as a senior, she is like, ‘I’m not leaving here Coach without a banner, I’m not leaving here without a ring. I’m going to do it by stepping out of my comfort zone a little bit, being more vocal, being able to do the things that they know I can do to really help them. So, I think her mindset changed and that’s allowed her to do what she does. We all knew she was capable of this. She’s been fun to coach, and she’s excited for what she’s been able to do. I’m excited to see how she continues this season.”
On Erin Storck: “Erin is a really special kid. She graduated college in three years. She’s now getting her MBA in her fourth year. When she started as a freshman, she didn’t really have a large offensive presence. Over the last three years, she really has come into her own offensively. She’s really a complete player right now. She’s been a real special part of our program, just with how she works hard all of the time and she’ll never let anyone outwork her.”
On Kiana Ye: “Kiana has got some tough breaks. But the thing about her, which I admire so much, is that she’s always positive. She helps the team so much with her energy, she is such a great advocate for Sacred Heart women’s basketball. She really is a positive presence in our women’s basketball community. She’s going to be very successful in life. She’s a savvy businesswoman, really smart, and great with people. She has done such a great job of being a presence of positive energy, and I’m really proud of her and what she has done.”
Last week, before the Pioneers embarked on their Pennsylvania road trip to Saint Francis U and Robert Morris, we had a chance to sit down for a special round table discussion with two of SHU’s grad students, Erin Storck (ES), a marketing major and in the MBA program with a concentration in visual marketing, and Kiana Ye (KY), a business management major and in the MBA program with a concentration in management, to discuss their academic career as well as Sacred Heart women’s basketball…
CD: What was the workload like over the years, taking on extra credits in addition to basketball and other responsibilities? What was it like having to manage all of that?
ES: We’re lucky that we get to take classes over the summer. So even incoming as a freshman, you get credits that transfer in from high school, but then we have those summer classes that we are mandated to take in the beginning, help push us along and get us ahead of the game. For me personally, it got me adjusted to the college life very quickly, which was nice. As a freshman you have to deal with the beginning of classes, basketball, all of that. It was nice to have basketball kind of under your belt a little bit and classes under your belt.
KY: I completely agree. The pace and everything coming in over the summer, it’s like a job. You have basketball and then you have online classes or in class for three hours a day, so it’s not bad. It benefits us in the long run.
ES: And the good benefit of academics and athletics is that we were able to build good relationships with our professors. I really feel like the professor relationships helped me. I was able to go to their office hours and get a better connection with them. Being a basketball player, several of our professors, like Professor Scarpati, always comes to our basketball games, and that kind of support is amazing. They understand the workload, but they also hold us to a high expectation.
CD: Do you think it is any benefit that you already completed graduation and are already in the graduate program, that those pressures are already behind you during this basketball season?
ES: The only sacrifice is that because of our time commitment, other people are able to get more internships and job experience at this point. We both have internships and jobs during our offseason, but that time commitment cuts us a little short.
KY: The journey leading up to grad school was long, but honestly it was amazing. Getting your masters paid for and getting it in five years is awesome to put on your resume, and the employers get to see that. I think everything will be worth it, and seem worth it, when I clinch my first job. So that’s been a little pressure lately, but honestly, we’re set up for success at Sacred Heart.
CD: What kind of internship experiences have you had?
KY: This past summer I worked with a graphic design internship in NYC, with the fashion industry. That’s where I’m heading for too, so it was a good experience.
ES: Mine was at home, it was a marketing company. It was cool because they worked a lot with packaged goods, displays, and a lot of it was in the cosmetic industry. For me it was exposure to a side of the industry that I didn’t even know existed. That kind of opened my eyes that there is a lot of opportunity out there that I didn’t even know exists.
CD: Switching gears to basketball, what has been the key to the team’s great start this year?
KY: We’re having fun. First game we won, second game, and now it’s a six game, and we’re like, ‘wow this is a lot of fun.’ And we’re really hungry. Especially being here for five years, being so close. But now we just want the ring. We want the banners, we want the ring, and with this group of girls, makes it real special.
CD: It does seem like you guys are having fun and there’s this special vibe with your team. Are you sensing that too?
ES: Absolutely. Obviously, we have our long-term goals that we’re all committed to. Coach has made an emphasis on the day to day, getting better every day, and a big emphasis is on being good teammates. When we are good teammates to each other, that is when we have so much fun with each other. That’s extra high fives, extra celebrations, our games are just more exciting to play when we are playing for each other.
CD: A few years back, you had the NEC championship game was right here at the Pitt Center. How much of that experience do you think about, especially now that it’s your last go around, to try and get back to that point and have a different outcome?
KY: I think about it every day. And it’s good that we experienced it, because now the younger girls, they see that we’ve been there and all the experiences that we’ve been through.
ES: It goes back to that ‘hungry’. Hungry is a big word for us, because we were so close. We saw it in front of us, and now with a whole new squad, we’re like ‘it’s go time.’
CD: What were some of your memories of going to Argentina with the team over the summer?
ES: The experience was unbelievable. Never in my life did I think that would be an opportunity. Then to share it with the people that I shared it with, with this team and the coaches, was unbelievable. Then having the basketball exposure, that was just an added benefit. We were able to play their national team, and all of it was kind of surreal, but I was happy we were able to do it with the people we did it with, because that made it so special.
KY: That’s the thing, basketball takes you to places that you would never expect. Argentina, the culture, and the people, and the food, it was all a great experience. And getting in the gym early gave us an advantage, we got to work together, play against national teams, so it was a great experience.
CD: Have you ever seen Kat (Haines) play as well as she has been playing over the last few weeks?
KY: I think it goes back to the hungry part. Even in the summer, we had internships in the city every day, so we took the train at 6am every day, and we had talks about ‘what do you want for the season?’ She’s hungry, she was hungry since the summer. That’s the attitude that’s not new for Kat, she’s always been so competitive, but this has been a whole new level.
CD: How do you plan on leaving the place better than how you found it, when your playing career with SHU is done after this year?
ES: A big thing the both of us have emphasized is the importance of team chemistry. Kiana specifically led the way with that, not just on the court but off the court. When we had six freshmen last year, she made sure to take them under her wing. I feel like leaving that mark will be important moving forward. The season is so long, we have to be a family in order to succeed. I know the girls under us will do the same thing moving forward because of the impact that we’ve had on them, and they will want to continue that.
KY: This year five seniors are leaving, and then we’ll have a whole new round of girls coming in. So we’re hoping, exactly what Erin said, that they are going to take them under their wing, spread the culture, and be like ‘we’re a family and we love each other.’ When Adaysha Williams, Hannah Kimmel, and Kelcey Castro were here they did the same for us, so that’s the culture and the history that Sacred Heart basketball brings.
CD: Looking forward, where do you see yourself in 4-5 years?
ES: I always joke that I want to be retired
KY: Great question, I’ve been asking myself that every day. I’ve been applying to jobs every day. Right now, my goal is to get into the fashion industry and see where that brings me. I’m very ambitious and flexible, that’s what basketball taught me, so we’ll see.
CD: Finally, what does the team need to do or continue to do in order to win that championship this year?
ES: Stay focused on our strengths, on staying together, playing for each other, and being good teammates. The season is long and we’re expecting highs and lows. We just want to make sure that, at least if we can stay consistent on the things we can control, that will give us the best outcome.
KY: Stay confident, stay having fun, and look at it day by day. Long term goals are awesome, but we have to work hard 100% of the time and we can’t take a play off, because that play we take off, someone is going to punch us in the throat, so we just got to keep working.
Coming off of a tough Pennsylvania road trip, the Pioneers will return home for the start of a three game homestand on Saturday, February 2nd, when they host the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers.
#NECWBB NEWS AND NOTES
*WHERE THEY STAND: For the second straight season the Robert Morris Colonials completed a perfect January and an 8-0 start in conference play, with victories this past weekend against Wagner (69-46) and Sacred Heart (64-46). The Colonials stand in sole possession of first place, two games clear of the Pioneers.
In Monday night’s victory over Sacred Heart, the Colonials dominated down low from the get-go, outscoring the Pioneers in the paint 36-14. RMU’s duo of Nneka Ezeigbo and Ire Ozzy-Momodu combined for 30 points and 22 rebounds, while holding the reigning Player of the Week, Katherine Haines, to just seven points and four rebounds on the night.
In his post-game NEC Front Row interview with Adam Gusky, Colonials head coach Charlie Buscaglia commented on the play of his centers, “They really controlled inside today. They were very good in the post, very strong. They played with a great pace, they weren’t going 100 miles an hour, but they were explosive and aggressive in the post. It definitely set the tone for the game.”
In conference play, RMU has allowed only 50.8 points per game, holding opponents to under 50 points four times. Their stingy defense has also held opponents to 33% shooting and has forced nearly 20 turnovers per game.
Robert Morris, who hasn’t lost a game in January since 2017, will hit the road to begin the month of February with a one-game road trip in New Jersey. RMU will look to equal last year’s 9-0 league start on Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson. With a win, the Colonials would be the ninth team since the turn of the century to start at least 9-0 in NEC play, but the first ever to do it in consecutive seasons.
Meanwhile, following a pair of losses in Pennsylvania, the Sacred Heart Pioneers slip down to second in the standings, one game ahead of St. Francis Brooklyn and Saint Francis U. The Pioneers will look to rebound and keep control of the #2 spot when they host St. Francis Brooklyn on Saturday. The Pioneers and Terriers just met nearly two weeks ago in Brooklyn, as SHU squeaked out a two point win with a pair of defensive stops in the final seconds.
Mount St. Mary’s and Bryant are currently tied for fifth place, one game back of the Terriers and Red Flash, while Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner are sitting tied for seventh place. Central Connecticut picked up a huge win on Monday night against LIU Brooklyn 63-57 to stay one game out of the top eight.
*ANOTHER MOUNT MONDAY: Last week here in the NEC Overtime! Blog we brought up the interesting discrepancy between Mount’s numbers in conference games on Saturday compared to Monday. This week, the Mount kept that Monday momentum rolling with a thrilling 78-75 victory over St. Francis Brooklyn. The battle between two of the top shooting teams in the league was a back and forth tussle that saw nine ties, 13 lead changes, and the largest lead for either team stand at seven points. It would come down to the final eight seconds and a missed three by Amy O’Neill before the Mount could seal the win.
Four Mountaineers finished in double figures scoring, with senior Juliette Lawless leading the way with a 28 point effort on 11-19 shooting and 4-6 from three. Both teams shot over 40% for the game. Mount had the advantage from behind the arc, netting 12 made threes, but the Terriers cashed in at the charity stripe, going 14-18. A key difference was the Mount committing only nine turnovers, while forcing 19 Terrier miscues, and turning them into 22 points.
In her post-game interview on NEC Front Row, Mount head coach Maria Marchesano commented on the team’s victory, “I remember a lot of people saying ‘we can’t wait for these two teams to play’ and it lived up to its bill. I’m really proud of our team’s effort. They’re gassed, they left it all out on the floor. It was a hard fought battle, a typical conference game.”
Mount improved to 3-1 on Mondays since the start of conference play, with their Monday NEC numbers continuing to look more impressive than any other day of the week…
Mount Mondays: 104-248, 41.9% FG…37-114, 32.5% 3PT…72.8ppg…15 turnovers per game
Unfortunately, next week’s schedule does not include a Monday game, so the Mountaineers will have to wait until February 11th to take the court again for another “Mount Monday” opportunity when they travel to LIU Brooklyn.
*HITTING THE CENTURY MARK: For the fourth time this season, a Northeast Conference team reached triple digits on the scoreboard, as the Saint Francis Red Flash defeated the Wagner Seahawks 107-70 on Monday night. The 107 points marked the second highest scoring total in the league this season (behind St. Francis Brooklyn’s 110 points back on November 16th) and the fifth highest point total for a single game in Red Flash history.
Among the impressive offensive numbers: SFU shot 60.9% from the floor, made a season high 18 three pointers on the night (second most for a single game in program history), and produced an incredible 31 assists on 39 made field goals (also second most for a single game in program history).
“Really great performance tonight. I’m really proud of these guys, particularly for the teamwork. We really shared the basketball,” said interim head coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl in the post-game press conference. “We’ve seen a lot of improvement over this weekend and we have to continue that. We’re in February now, next weekend is February. We’re going on the road again to a real feisty Mount St. Mary’s team that I know will be ready for us, but we’ll take a lot of confidence into that game.”
*1,000 POINTS: Congratulations to the latest 1,000 point scorer in the Northeast Conference, St. Francis Brooklyn senior Maria Palarino. The Terrier senior became the 17th member of the St. Francis Brooklyn 1,000 point club, and the fourth NEC women’s basketball player to reach the 1,000 point mark this season. Palarino reached the milestone on a layup late in the second quarter of Monday night’s game at Mount St. Mary’s.
Looking ahead, there are four other NEC women’s basketball players on track to possibly reach 1,000 points by the end of the season, including: SFBK’s Jade Johnson (81 points away), FDU’s Madelynn Comly (114 points away), Mount’s Juliette Lawless (170 points away), and SHU’s Erin Storck (193 points away).
A LOOK AHEAD
Saturday, February 2, 2019 (4-4) Bryant at (2-6) Central Connecticut State, 1pm (5-3) Saint Francis U at (4-4) Mount St. Mary’s, 1pm (ESPN3) (0-8) LIU Brooklyn at (3-5) Wagner, 1pm (5-3) St. Francis Brooklyn at (6-2) Sacred Heart, 1pm (8-0) Robert Morris at (3-5) Fairleigh Dickinson, 2pm
GAME OF THE WEEK PREVIEW: 2/2/19 – Saint Francis U at Mount St. Mary’s, 1pm (ESPN3)
The NEC women’s basketball conference schedule enters February and hits the halfway point with a single game weekend. In a one week only break from the usual Saturday-Monday routine, teams will play on Saturday afternoon and then have a full week before they return to action again on Saturday, February 9th.
This week’s feature game will be our ESPN3 “Game of the Week” with the reigning champion, Saint Francis Red Flash visiting Emmitsburg, MD to take on the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers with Paul Dottino and Joe DeSantis on the call.
The Red Flash and Mountaineers will both come in with a ton of momentum. After starting 3-0 and then dropping three straight, SFU rebounded with a strong sweep this past weekend of Sacred Heart and Wagner. Saint Francis averaged 96 points on 55% shooting in the two games, while only allowing an average of 69 points. On the other side, after starting NEC play 0-3, and 1-4 in their first five, the Mount have won three in a row and four out of their last five. Senior Juliette Lawless has averaged 22.7 points on 54.8% shooting during their current three game streak.
Standing in the ESPN3 national broadcast spotlight will be the top two scorers in the NEC, SFU’s Jess Kovatch (21.5ppg) and Mount’s Juliette Lawless (18.7ppg). While these two top stars will certainly draw a ton of attention, there are several other notable standouts to pay close attention too. Mount freshman Michaela Harrison turned a lot of heads in non-conference play when she recorded a 30 point outing in just her fifth career contest back in November against Towson. While she struggled to maintain that level of play in the few games immediately thereafter, she has really turned it on as of late. Harrison made her way back into the starting lineup for the last four games, averaging 15ppg during that stretch. For SFU, Courtney Zezza is coming off perhaps her hottest shooting weekend of her career, connecting on eight threes over the two game span. Also, Red Flash sophomore Haley Thomas has been among the most improved players in the league this year. In conference play, the Hooversville, PA native is second on the team, averaging 12.3 points per game (up from averaging only 1.9ppg in NEC play last year). Thomas has also gone 39-40 on the season from the charity stripe, converting on 38 straight free throws since her last miss back in November against Seton Hill.
In Saturday’s game, all eyes figure to be focused on the three point line, as Saint Francis U and Mount St. Mary’s are the top two teams in three pointers made and three pointers attempted in conference play. These two teams already met back on the opening weekend of conference play in early January, with SFU coming away with a 68-66 victory at home. In that game, both teams combined for 54 three point attempts. In fact, 45% of all shots taken in that game came from three-point land.
The game would feature plenty of drama, with five ties and 12 lead changes. With the game tied at 63 and a minute and a half showing on the clock, SFU’s Karson Swogger drained a three, followed by a pair of Kovatch free throws to put the Flash up five. Harrison answered with a three with 38 seconds to spare, to cut the deficit to two. Swogger appeared to make the game clinching three with six seconds to go, however after a video replay, a shot clock violation was called instead. Mount would receive one final opportunity, however Daly Sullivan’s three point attempt from the corner would fall short, as the Red Flash escaped with the win.
Historically, SFU has won three straight meetings and seven out of their last eight against the Mountaineers. This game will also include some very early postseason implications. The teams are only separated by one game in the standings, with the winner assured to finish the first half of conference play in the top four. A Red Flash win would also clinch the season series tiebreaker against Mount, which could come into play for seeding purposes and home court advantage, when we reach the conclusion of the regular season.
THREE: Courtney Zezza, SR (SFU): Zezza put together her most impressive weekend of the conference season, scoring 17 points on Saturday against Sacred Heart and 15 points on Monday against Wagner. Zezza shot 55% for the weekend, including a blistering 47% from beyond the arc. The Plum, PA native, recorded a career high five threes against the Pioneers, including three straight makes in the final minute of the third quarter.
TWO: Jess Kovatch, SR (SFU): The NEC’s all-time leading scorer recorded a combined 53 points on the weekend, while shooting a red hot 63%. Against the Pioneers, Kovatch scored 23 points on 7-11 shooting. Then on Monday night against Wagner, Kovatch recorded her second 30 point game of the season. In the first half against the Seahawks, she was nearly ‘can’t miss,’ with 18 points on 6-10 shooting and 4-7 from three. Overall, Kovatch would finish the night with 30 points on 10-16 shooting and 6-10 from downtown. Kovatch is a top 15 scorer in the country and stands third in the nation in three point field goals made per game.
ONE: Nneka Ezeigbo, JR (RMU): On a weekend where the Robert Morris Colonials looked pretty dominant in the post during victories over Wagner and Sacred Heart, Nneka Ezeigbo earns our top “Star of the Week.” Ezeigbo posted a pair of double-doubles with 13 points and a season-high 17 rebounds against Wagner on Saturday, and then followed that up with 16 points and 11 rebounds in a battle for first place against Sacred Heart. Ezeigbo partnered with sophomore Ire Ozzy-Momodu to firmly control the paint against the Pioneers. The duo combined for 30 points and 22 rebounds on the night, and helped lead the Colonials to a 36-14 advantage in points in the paint. Since the start of conference play, Ezeigbo has been amongst the league’s best in rebounding, steals, and usage rate, while leading the league in offensive rebounds.
STAT OF THE WEEK
*Saint Francis U senior guard Jess Kovatch has 2,588 career points, four points shy of surpassing Wagner’s Terrance Bailey (1983-87) for the most points scored in NEC men’s or women’s basketball history. Kovatch can become the leading scorer in all of Northeast Conference basketball on Saturday afternoon when the Red Flash visit Mount St. Mary’s on ESPN3.
Thank you to Sacred Heart grad students Erin Storck and Kiana Ye for taking the time to sit down with us this week for our feature round table chat. Join us back here at the NEC Overtime! Blog next Wednesday, February 6th for a special edition of the NEC WBB Fast Break column. As teams hit the halfway point of the conference season following action on Saturday, we will roll out the red carpet and present the nominees for the Fast Break NEC Mid-Season Awards!