FAIRFIELD, Conn. - This season has certainly had its ups and downs for the St. Francis women's basketball team.
Two major setbacks came at the hands of Sacred Heart.
The Red Flash will try to overcome a pair of regular season blowout losses to the Pioneers tonight when they invade the Pitt Center for the Northeast Conference Tournament semifinals.
And Sacred Heart coach Ed Swanson knows that despite losing by an average of 23 points in the teams' two meetings this year, St. Francis will be ready to play.
"I think you can the other two matchups and really throw them out the window," he said. "They're not that far removed from back-to-back championships. [St. Francis coach] Joe [Haigh] has been a part of that, so they know how to prepare this time of year.
"We've got a hard task ahead of us [tonight]. That's all that's really on my mind."
Haigh is well aware of the tall task that sits before the Flash (16-14).
St. Francis turned the ball over a combined 48 times and shot no better than 33 percent.
"It starts with taking care of the basketball to get shots at the offensive end," Haigh said. "The first two times, we were really bad. We turned the ball over way too much. We didn't play smart. We have to take care of the ball, then we have to play with a lot of energy and emotion. We haven't shot the ball well against Sacred Heart. Part of that, you have to attribute to Sacred Heart's defense. We've got to make shots in here.
"They are a great defensive team. They're very fundamentally sound, they don't gamble a whole lot. They're physical on the inside. They're just a well-coached, fundamentally sound, tough basketball team."
Gabrielle Washington leads the defending champion Pioneers (22-9) offensively with 16.8 points per game. She scored 12 and 22 points, respectively, against the Red Flash this season. Kiley Evans, who averages 11.3 points had a pair of big games, combining for 39 points.
Blair Koniszewski is a big threat off the bench, averaging over nine points per game.
"They have two very good offensive players in Washington and Evans," Haigh said. "Evans has killed us - good solid player, good shooter.
"Koniszewski can go off at any time, so we'll have to pay attention to her, too."
But Haigh feels his team's best chance defensively is to key on point guard Ericka Norman.
The junior had 27 points and 19 assists against the Red Flash this season.
"Their engine, the motor for their team is Norman," Haigh said. "We're going to try to contain her and make things tough on her. Hopefully that will disrupt their offense a little bit and get some other people out of sync."
"We're very fragile," Swanson said. "We're in a situation where we're not the best horse in the race every night. Our effort has got to be superb, especially on the defensive side. If it's there on the defensive side, then we're going to be pretty good on the offensive side."
Sacred Heart boasts the league's top defense, only allowing 55.4 points per game.
St. Francis scored 50 and 56 points in the two losses, a far cry from its 65.4-point output.
Alli Williams (17.5 ppg) will get her points, but she will definitely need a supporting cast if the Red Flash want to advance to their 15th conference championship game.
"Kia Gibbs is a huge factor," Haigh said of his point guard who scores over 10 points per game. "With the way that she played against Central [Connecticut] - the point total was great, but the fact was that she did it on so few shots. She's the one that can have a 15- to 20-point game that would really help things out for us."
From a long-distance perspective, any of St. Francis' 3-point threats - Alexa Hayward, Kelley Doogan, Brooklyn Taylor and Hailey Carangelo - will have to step up, too.
"We do have shooters," Haigh said. "When we're good, we're making shots. We need Lex, Brooklyn, Hailey or Kelley to make a few shots."
"I think it's a real interesting matchup," Swanson said. "Obviously they have a lot of weapons offensively that can score. I don't think we have as many weapons. We're really defensive-minded and we have to be on our 'A' game because of how many weapons they have."
Sacred Heart and St. Francis have combined to win the last four NEC titles. Only one team, though, will have a chance to continue that streak tonight.