Robert Morris women ousted by St. Francis in NEC final
LORETTO — The Northeast Conference was tortured this season by Jessica Kovatch. Now the nation will get a chance to watch her play.
Kovatch, the NEC Player of the Year, scored 29 points and sparked a second-half surge that carried top-seeded St. Francis (Pa.) to a 66-56 victory over No. 2 seed Robert Morris on Sunday in the NEC championship game at DeGol Arena, sending the Red Flash to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
St. Francis (24-9) will find out its first-round opponent Monday night.
Robert Morris (25-7), which shared the NEC regular-season title with the Red Flash and split their season series, will play in the WNIT. That field will be revealed shortly after the NCAA lineup is set.
“It's been a long process to get back,” St. Francis coach Joe Haigh said. “To end up with a championship this year is exciting for the players and everybody at St. Francis. It was awesome to be able to do this on our home court.”
It was St. Francis' record 17th appearance in the NEC title game and record 12th time the Red Flash have qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The conference is winless in NCAAs since first receiving an automatic bid in 1994.
Kovatch, a 5-foot-9 junior from New Jersey, scored a NEC Tournament-record 103 points in three games and is the nation's second-leading scorer (24.9 ppg).
She was named NEC Tournament MVP.
There were some dicey moments Sunday. When Kovatch twisted an ankle in the second half — after the Red Flash rallied from a three-point deficit to take a 54-44 lead — she retreated to the bench and gathered her composure.
“I'm a pretty emotional player. I just had my teammates calm me down a little,” she said.
With Kovatch sitting, Robert Morris tried to come back, and the Colonials got within 56-51 with 4 minutes, 3 seconds left on a jumper by Megan Smith.
But after Kovatch's return, St. Francis answered with a 6-0 run, capped by her three-point play.
“Definitely a dynamic scorer,” Robert Morris coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “Definitely makes you work hard. Give her all the credit for the work she probably puts into the gym. I thought we did a better job on her today, but she still got loose at times.”
Kovatch scored a combined 74 points in two regular-season games against Robert Morris, including a season-high 42 in a 63-62 loss Jan. 13.
Kovatch converted a three-point play after a steal by Caitlyn Kroll with 1:27 left to make it 61-51.
That sequence fired up the home crowd.
“Coming into the second half, we talked about just picking it up on defense because they were still in the game with us,” Kovatch said.
“It was an emotional play, and I let out my emotions after that play. We needed a little spark to our offense, and when we picked it up on defense, that transitioned into our offense.”
Kroll added 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Ace Harrison also had 10 rebounds for St. Francis. Jocelynne Jones led Robert Morris with 21 points. Smith and Mikalah Mulrain scored 10 each.
“They do what they do real well,” Buscaglia said. “They've got a certain (running) style, and it's a clash of styles. We did a good job of containing them for a while, but it's tough to do it for 40 minutes.”
Dave Mackall is a freelance writer.