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Robert Morris takes swing at NCAA women's bid

| Friday, March 10, 2017, 8:15 p.m.
Robert Morris athletics
Robert Morris women's basketball coach Charlie Buscaglia and leading scorer Anna Niki Stamolamprou are a win in the NEC Tournament final from an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

If Mom hadn't cared so much, perhaps Charlie Buscaglia wouldn't be on the campus of Robert Morris University preparing his women's basketball team for another swing at an NCAA Tournament berth.

Maybe he'd be nursing his 10th or 11th broken nose and thinking about the next time he would climb into a boxing ring, challenging himself to avoid the other guy's gloves.

Before he was a basketball coach, Buscaglia was a boxer as an undergrad at Manhattan College. He was 3-0, but his mother, Diane, convinced him to stop and his father, Sal, offered him a job as an assistant at Manhattan.

But not before he suffered a ninth broken nose (some from playing high school basketball in Buffalo, but most inside the ropes).

It was a good choice. This is his first year as Robert Morris' head coach — after 17 years on his father's staff at two schools — and Buscaglia is the Northeast Conference coach of the year.

On Sunday, in the 1,127th and final game at Sewall Center, he will lead the Colonials against Bryant (18-13) in the NEC championship game. Tipoff is 2 p.m. on ESPNU.

Buscaglia turned to boxing for the same reason his players spend hours in the gym perfecting their games.

“I like to compete and I always felt like I wanted to challenge myself in my heart,” he said. “I always wanted to be somebody I could look in the mirror and say, ‘I pushed myself as hard as I could, and I didn't put myself into a position where I could run to somebody.' ”

It's much the same for the Robert Morris women (21-10), who survived injuries to three of its best players to win the regular-season title and sit on the brink of the school's fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Buscaglia said the won-loss record is not unrelated to the culture he has built among his players.

For example, he has specific rules about the team meal — napkins on laps, no cellphones and give thanks.

“We're old-school, we actually talk to each other,” he said. “No matter how technologically advanced we get, we still have to be people.”

Robert Morris should feel challenged by Bryant, which is the only team to defeat the Colonials in the past 14 games. That was a 62-59 overtime decision in Rhode Island in which Robert Morris' Mikalah Mulrain, Megan Smith and NNeka Ezeigbo fouled out in a span of 21 seconds in the fourth quarter.

Smith, a 6-foot-1 junior and the team's second-leading scorer (10.8 points), said avoiding foul trouble will be important against Bryant, which is one of the few teams in the NEC to start two post players in 6-1 Alex Klein and 6-2 Morgan Olander.

“I feel like I have to stay out there,” she said.

Meanwhile, the women will contend with the mixed emotions of playing one of the biggest games of their careers in a facility that will be torn down this summer. Named after former university president Charles L. Sewall, the Chuck has housed the school's men's and women's basketball teams and women's volleyball teams since 1985.

“It's kind of sad,” said senior guard Anna Niki Stamolamprou, the team's leading scorer (16.3). “But at the same time I'm excited for the game.”

She said she woke up four times Thursday night before she forced herself to “calm down and get some sleep.”

“I'm going to give more than 100 percent,” she said, “so we leave the building with a W.”

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

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