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Robert Morris women to play for NEC title

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, March 12, 2016, 10:10 p.m.
Robert Morris' Anna Niki Stamolamprou shoots a 3-pointer against Fairleigh Dickinson during the NEC Women's Tournament on Sunday, March 6, 2016, at Sewall Center.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Robert Morris' Anna Niki Stamolamprou shoots a 3-pointer against Fairleigh Dickinson during the NEC Women's Tournament on Sunday, March 6, 2016, at Sewall Center.

The Robert Morris women's basketball team carries a five-game winning streak into the Northeast Conference championship game Sunday against Sacred Heart.

That was news to coach Sal Buscaglia.

“I know we won our last game,” said Buscaglia, whose Colonials (19-12) defeated Bryant in the NEC semifinals to reach the conference championship game for the third consecutive season and eighth overall. The game is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the William H. Pitt Center in Fairfield, Conn. It will be televised by ESPNU.

Buscaglia is not interested in the streak.

“I've been doing this for 38 years,” he said. “One game at a time, one practice at a time, one possession at a time. (Keeping track of victories) is for fans and other people to worry about.”

Actually, his worries are few.

Robert Morris has defeated its opponents by more than 16 points per game during its streak and is led by junior guard Anna Niki Stamolamprou, who has scored 43 points in tournament victories against Fairleigh Dickinson and Bryant. One more win puts Robert Morris into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past three years.

“We are playing at our highest level right now,” Buscaglia said. “Things are clicking for us.”

Still, Buscaglia said there is more to his program than “scoring more points than the other team.”

Buscaglia and Robert Morris officials decided not to return to Western Pennsylvania after defeating Bryant on Wednesday night in Smithfield, R.I. Instead, they took a bus to Fairfield, Conn. — Sacred Heart's home — and spent the next three days practicing and watching video.

What about the inevitable down time?

Buscaglia expects his players, who he said carry a collective 3.6 grade-point average, to study, write papers and just read for pleasure. “Even though it's spring break,” he said.

“Professors tell me they wish they had more students like my players,” he said.

Although Buscaglia said he is astonished by his players' academic success — “I couldn't do it,” he said — their play this season is merely the expectation.

“They know there are standards, and that's to win the conference,” he said. “We've always been one of the teams to beat.”

Still, Buscaglia acknowledges Robert Morris, the No. 3 seed, will be the underdog to No. 1 Sacred Heart (20-11), which is 18-1 since starting the season 2-10.

“There's no question we are the underdog,” Buscaglia said. “We understand that. (Sacred Heart) won all those games. They beat us the last time (62-52 on Feb. 15).”

Sacred Heart coach Jessica Mannetti said her season turned in the first game against Robert Morris on Jan. 2 in Moon. The Colonials won 78-63, but Mannetti said that's when her team started playing unselfishly. Two nights later, Sacred Heart defeated St. Francis (Pa.), 81-77.

Since then, Sacred Heart has lost only once: by two points to Bryant on Jan. 30.

Mannetti said she hasn't seen a big change in her team during its 11-game winning streak, other than the seniors stepping up and showing leadership.

Senior Hannah Kimmel, the NEC Player of the Year, leads the team in scoring (16.8 points per game) and is second in rebounding (7.8). Senior Alissa Tarsi averages 8.2 rebounds and is tops in the conference with a 54.1 percent field-goal percentage.

But senior Lerae Ettienne, who has started only one game, provides the key ingredient.

“She's not afraid to have hard conversations with people and make sure they embrace the team and get over themselves,” Mannetti said.

Meanwhile, Buscaglia knows his team has had its share of adversity.

After starting the season 4-5, Robert Morris won six in a row before losing four of five. Two three-game streaks (one winning, one losing) followed before its current run of five consecutive victories.

“Who knows what can happen Sunday?” Buscaglia said.

He does know this, though: “I'm not going to define our season by one game.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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