RMU women advance to NEC championship game
Robert Morris can close Sewall Center with a championship.
Nneka Ezeigbo had 18 points and Anna Niki Stamolamprou scored 15 to defeat Central Connecticut, 70-62, in a NEC women's basketball semifinal Wednesday night at Sewall Center. The victory carries No. 1 seed Robert Morris (21-10) to the conference finals for the fourth year in a row.
The finals appearance is the first for Ezeigbo, a freshman. For Stamolamprou, it will be the senior's fourth.
“It's amazing. Four years, four championship games,” said Stamolamprou, the conference player of the year. “I can't even put it into words what it means.”
The conference final is 2 p.m. Sunday at Sewall Center against No. 4 Bryant. It will be the final basketball game at RMU's arena, which is scheduled for demolition this summer as the school builds a new venue.
In its past three appearances, Robert Morris won two NEC titles in 2014 and '16. RMU split with Bryant in the regular season, winning 62-46 on Jan. 21, but losing the rematch 62-59 in overtime on Feb. 20.
First-year RMU coach Charlie Buscaglia was around for the team's earlier championships as an assistant, but this will be his first appearance as head coach.
“Being here for as many years as I have and being around these players as an associate head coach, the feeling is still there the same,” said Buscaglia, who coached the team since '03 alongside his father. “Coach Sal, my father, coaching with him as long as I have, I learned a ton. ... I think I've had some great experience at this.”
Robert Morris' lead was only four points midway through the third quarter Wednesday before junior Shakema Dashiell made a 3-pointer from atop the key and Ezeigbo added a layup and foul shot 40 seconds later to lead 44-34.
A 3-pointer by Stamolamprou kept the lead at 10 with 3:09 left in the third, until layups by Ezeigbo and Dashiell pushed the lead to 51-38. RMU's second-half lead peaked at 13 points.
“I came in and got after them a little bit (at halftime) because I thought we were not playing the kind of defense that we can play,” said Buscaglia, whose team led 33-29 at half. “We're asking a lot of our players to go out there and play big minutes and give a lot of passion on defense every possession.”
Stamolamprou played 40 minutes and Rebeca Navarro logged 37. Navarro had 10 points
“That run came because we push forward,” Buscaglia said, “even though we were getting tired.”
With 5:40 left in the fourth, Central Connecticut narrowed RMU's lead to five points with five free throws. The lead was just 55-50 after two foul shots by Aleah Epps, before RMU's Ezeigbo and Nia Adams scored in a row for a nine-point lead.
Clinging to a single-digit lead, Navarro crushed Central Connecticut's hopes with a 3-pointer to lead 64-54 with 1:43 left.
Robert Morris defeated Central Connecticut by 23 points just a month ago, the second of two regular-season victories over the Blue Devils. But the Colonials started slowly Wednesday, missed five of their first seven shots and trailed early.
Robert Morris led 2-0 and 4-2, but the Colonials stalled and Central Connecticut quickly led 7-4 after a layup by Andi Lydon, a sophomore from Shaler who scored seven first-quarter points and finished with 10. Central Connecticut's lead reached 11-6 before Robert Morris slowly found its rhythm.
A 3-pointer by Navarro gave RMU a 14-13 lead with a minute left in the first quarter. After Central Connecticut retook a one-point lead, a layup by Nneka Ezeigo pushed RMU ahead 16-15 after one quarter.
Central Connecticut tried to build a lead early in the second quarter with consecutive layups by Cebria Outlow and Kiana Patterson to lead by four. But it was short-lived; there were eight lead changes and two ties in the first half.
The last tie was at 25-25 after a layup by Central Connecticut's Taylor Goode with 4:20 until half. RMU broke the tie with an 8-0 run. After a free throw by junior Mikalah Mulrain, sophomore Nia Adams, Navarro and Ezeigbo had consecutive layups to lead 32-25 with 1:12 left in the first half.
RMU led 33-29 at half.
In the regular season, RMU defeated Central Connecticut, 62-39, on Feb. 18 in New Britain, Conn., which followed RMU's 55-46 victory Jan. 23 at Sewall Center.