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Robert Morris women top St. Francis (Pa.) for NCAA Tournament berth

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 5:33 p.m.

MOON TOWNSHIP — With seven seconds left on the clock and Artemis Spanou at the free-throw line, Robert Morris women's coach Sal Buscaglia threw his hands in the air and started high-fiving his coaching staff and bench.

The crowd of 903 at the Sewall Center chanted “MVP” as Spanou hit her second of two final free throws, then came out of the game, hugging her coaches as the final buzzer sounded and the students rushed the floor.

Spanou turned in a 30-point, 20-rebound, six-assist performance in the Northeast Conference Tournament championship game against No. 3 St. Francis (Pa.), and the top-seeded Colonials (21-11) punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 78-64 win Sunday.

Spanou, who already had her 86th career double-double in the books after the first half, was named tournament MVP and climbed the ladder for the first cuts of the net.

“I still haven't realized it,” Spanou said, still twirling a piece of the net in her fingers. “I'm extremely proud of this team. I'm going to keep this little piece (of the net) forever.”

Freshman Anna Niki Stamolamprou, a fellow All-Tournament team member, finished with 16 points and six rebounds. St. Francis senior Alli Williams, also named to the All-Tournament team, led the Red Flash with 21 points and 13 rebounds.

This will be Robert Morris' third trip to the NCAA Tournament under Buscaglia and their first since 2008, when they won the NEC championship for the second year in a row. They'll find out their seeding Monday night during the selection show beginning at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

“I couldn't sleep last night because I kept saying I have to do the best coaching job that I've ever done because I just can't let these kids down,” Buscaglia said.

Robert Morris entered the second half leading 32-18.

With just less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, Williams spun under the basket and made a shot to make it 51-41, and coming out of a Robert Morris timeout, Alexa Hayward made a jump shot to make it 51-43.

Freshman center Cassie Oursler, who had just come back in the game after getting her third and fourth fouls within seconds of one another early in the second half, made a layup, assisted by Spanou, and the Colonials regained the double-digit lead.

Hayward hit a 3-pointer for the Red Flash, but Spanou answered immediately with one of her own.

That pattern continued throughout the second half.

Whenever the Red Flash started to gain steam, Robert Morris made a play to stuff them back down.

“We had a rough first half,” Williams said. “We only had 18 points, which is not the way we want to play. We needed to have more of a sense of urgency in the first half because it killed us. We were able to somewhat retaliate in the second half, but they always had an answer.”

The Red Flash opened a 9-2 lead five minutes into the game as the Colonials turned over the ball three times and made just two of their first seven shots.

After Spanou came from nowhere, spinning through a crowd of three Red Flash players to come up with a big offensive rebound, Rebecca Navarro hit the Colonials' first 3-pointer of the game to make it 9-7, and the Colonials came to life.

St. Francis regained the lead at 16-13, but it was all Robert Morris the rest of the half. Spanou hit a pair of shots, Navarro came up with two more 3-pointers and the Colonials ended the half on a 19-2 run.

“This is like the perfect ending, it's like a movie,” senior Kelly Hartwell said. “To come out on top with this group is just, I wouldn't want to be with any other group of people.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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