FAIRFIELD, Conn. - It's playoff time, and the St. Francis women's basketball team is right where it expects to be - playing for a conference championship.
And the Red Flash didn't let seeds or an unfamiliar gym affect their motivation.
Fourth-seeded St. Francis played one of its best games of the season as it avenged a pair of blowout losses to Sacred Heart and pounded the second-seeded Pioneers, 83-67, in the Northeast Conference Tournament semifinals Wednesday night at the Pitt Center.
Mirror photo by Nate Foreman
St. Francis' Alli Williams puts up two of her 24 points.
The Red Flash advanced to their 15th NEC championship game with the win - their fourth appearance in the last five years - and will be looking for their 12th title.
"It's great for St. Francis," said Red Flash coach Joe Haigh, who is St. Francis' third first-year coach to advance to the conference championship. "I'm happy, but I also expected to be here. We're St. Francis. We expect to be in championship games. We expect to work that way all year long and to get a great effort consistently.
"It's been kind of a rollercoaster season. Now we're at the end of it, and we are 40 minutes away from an NCAA Tournament."
It certainly didn't take long for the Red Flash (17-14) to show they came prepared to play.
Alli Williams scored St. Francis' first eight points - six from long range - and St. Francis took off from there.
Sacred Heart's Blair Koniszewski connected from deep to pull the Pioneers (22-10) within six with 13:30 left in the first half, but that's when everyone got involved for the Red Flash.
Williams and Rebecca Sparks each scored five points, Alexa Hayward drained a 3-pointer and Shene Fleming hit a free throw to give St. Francis a 29-9 lead less than six minutes later.
"We got outplayed, out-coached right from the opening tip," Sacred Heart coach Ed Swanson said. "They played with high energy, high emotion. We didn't match that."
"We all had it in our heads that it was win and advance, if we lose we're done," Williams said. "I think we all knew it was do or die. We needed to win. It was the only option. We came out strong and never looked back."
Williams recorded her 23rd double-double of the season with 24 points and 12 rebounds, but it was Sparks that played out of her mind to help the Flash.
The freshman had a career-high 27 points, including a 5-for-7 effort from downtown.
"I don't know what happened to Sparks tonight," Williams joked. "I never knew she was a shooter. But we'll go with it."
"When I first came into the game, I was nervous," Sparks said. "After a while, I just put all of my effort and my heart into it. I just played. I had fun."
Other than for a three-and-a-half minute stretch in the second half, St. Francis couldn't seem to miss. As a unit, the Red Flash made 13 3-pointers. The mark was one shy of their own tournament record they set against Robert Morris in 2010.
"It was an amazing game from our standpoint," Haigh said. "I couldn't be prouder of our team and the way that these guys played today. The effort and the energy that we came out with was just amazing."
The Red Flash hit 10 more 3-pointers than in their last trip to the Pitt Center on Feb. 18, when they lost 81-56 and had a 33 percent shooting effort.
Wednesday, St. Francis was a little better, connecting on 25-of-64 (39 percent) of its field goals.
Williams attributes the team's success to the time the Flash spend in the gym during shootaround Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon.
"It was good to get a lot of shots up in the unfamiliar gym," she said. "We all felt confident getting a lot of shots up. I hit my first three and that's all I needed."
Defensively, St. Francis was much better, too.
They rattled Sacred Heart point guard Ericka Norman, keying on the heart and soul of the Pioneers' offense.
"We defended great," Haigh said. "It started with Norman to try and get them uncomfortable because so much goes through their point guard.
"We had a different game plan coming into this game. These guys executed it great. Sacred Heart has been a consistent team all year. Norman is one of the best point guards in the league. We did a great job defensively."
Leading scorer Gabrielle Washington scored nine of her 16 points from the free-throw line. She was only 3-of-17 from the floor.
"I think Washington had to work a little harder on the perimeter," Haigh said. "I think they might have been a little bit tired at some points. Maybe we got a little lucky because she had an off-shooting night."
Sacred Heart cut St. Francis' 23-point lead down to 10 with 5:39 to play in the second half, but the Pioneers ran out of gas and the Red Flash responded.
"We knew they were going to make a run at us, and we needed a timeout or two," Haigh said. "We got a little frazzled and frantic. We just needed to settle down."
"I thought we used so much energy trying to come back," Swanson said. "Give St. Francis credit. Every time we made a little run, they had an answer. They came in here - it's a tough place to play - and really took it to us."
The Flash will play at Quinnipiac - winners of 21 straight games - in Sunday's NEC final in Haigh's first season as coach, and Williams says they aren't finished yet.
"It's a reflection of the coaching staff - what a great coach Joe is, the assistants do a great job every day, and the chemistry that we all have," Williams said. "It all comes together beautifully, especially this time of year.
"Now we're right where we want to be - playing for another championship."
ST. FRANCIS (17-14): Gibbs 3-6 1-3 7, Sparks 7-15 8-8 27, Hayward 3-8 0-0 9, Fleming 0-2 1-2 1, Williams 7-16 7-11 24, Carangelo 1-3 0-0 2, Taylor 0-0 0-0 0, Brock 2-3 0-0 6, Perkins 0-2 0-0 0, Keegan 1-2 2-2 4, Watts 0-0 0-0 0, Doogan 1-6 0-0 2, Phillips 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 25-64 13-32 83.
SACRED HEART (22-10): Norman 3-6 7-8 14, Evans 2-7 2-2 7, Merriman 4-8 2-3 10, Washington 3-17 9-10 16, Bland 1-2 0-0 2, Shepard 1-2 2-2 4, Koniszewski 4-14 2-2 14, Ettienne 0-0 0-0 0, Tarsi 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-56 24-27 67.
Halftime-St. Francis 46-26. 3-point goals-St. Francis 13-32 (Sparks 5-7, Hayward 3-7, Williams 3-10, Brock 2-3, Perkins 0-1, Doogan 0-2, Carangelo 0-2), Sacred Heart 7-18 (Koniszewski 4-13, Norman 1-1, Evans 1-2, Washington 1-2). Fouled out-Washington. Rebounds-St. Francis 40 (Williams 12), Sacred Heart 44 (Bland 16). Assists-St. Francis 13 (Williams 4), Sacred Heart 12 (Norman 6). Total fouls-St. Francis 22, Sacred Heart 22. A-632.