Robert Morris women beat St. Francis for NEC title, return to NCAAs
Robert Morris’ lead was crumbling and perhaps the season right along with it.
The noise inside the Colonials’ North Athletic Complex on Sunday during the Northeast Conference championship game was almost overwhelming.
Perhaps some nerves were rattled and some hearts were pumping faster than normal. All the momentum and energy seemed to be with visiting St. Francis (Pa.).
Yet, Robert Morris coach Charlie Buscaglia and his young women — nine of his 13 players are freshmen or sophomores — believed they could withstand anything St. Francis lobbed at them.
And it didn’t take long for them to prove it and walk off with a 65-54 victory, the Northeast Conference championship and a third berth in the NCAA Tournament in the past four years.
“I wasn’t concerned,” said Buscaglia, who might have been the only one among a crowd of 1,016 after St. Francis trimmed a 13-point lead to 53-51 with 4 minutes, 21 seconds left in the game.
“Because I know this team constantly digs deep, and we work at this every day at practice,” he said.
A serendipitous media timeout for the ESPNU folks didn’t hurt, either, artificially halting St. Francis’ momentum.
Robert Morris (22-10) came out of the huddle and forced three missed layups. Esther Castedo blocked another.
Finally, RMU point guard Nina Augustin, who led her team with 14 points, hit a 3-pointer to pump the lead to 56-51. Then, the defense took over, forcing two more missed shots and two turnovers, and there was Castedo standing in the corner just waiting to thrust the final dagger.
Freshman Isabella Posset, who had 12 points and six assists, threw what Buscaglia called “a gorgeous pass,” and Castedo hit the 3 to give the Colonials a 59-51 lead that St. Francis (16-17) never threatened.
Each of those moments was not unexpected, Buscaglia said.
“When you challenge yourself to come to work every day, even when you’re not feeling your best and you’re sore, those kinds of moments, I personally believe, happen because of that,” he said.
The 3s were important for the mathematics of the situation, but Buscaglia said defense was the critical element in the victory, the Colonials’ eighth in the past nine games. Defense was the theme of the season, actually. Robert Morris has allowed its opponents an average of only 54 points in 32 games, No. 1 in the NEC and No. 12 in the nation.
Neither team shot or handled the ball especially well. St. Francis committed 20 turnovers and shot 33.3 percent from the floor (19 of 57). Senior guard Jess Kovatch, who was averaging 21.8 points, missed 17 of 23 shots to finish with a game-high 18. She was supported by senior center Courtney Zezza (Plum), who scored 12 points but recorded only two baskets inside the 3-point line.
“They did a good job of cutting my left hand and forcing me to drive and not take the step-back 3,” Kovatch said. “They forced us to do things that we’re not comfortable doing.”
Robert Morris also struggled offensively, shooting 36 percent with 15 turnovers. Even NEC Tournament MVP Nneka Ezeigbo missed 13 of 17 shots.
“Sometimes the ball’s going to go in or go out,” Buscaglia said, “but if we go back on the other end and we make it tough for them to score and we get stops, we can have that moment. Let’s not dwell on that. Get the next play.”
Buscaglia said his team caused 20 turnovers because of its “passion and knowing the scouting report and understanding how we were going to disrupt what they were trying to do.”
The victory concluded Robert Morris’ two seasons at the North Athletic Complex. It moves into the new UPMC Events Center, also on campus, next season.
The Colonials leave their temporary home with a 27-5 record, 22-0 against NEC opponents. Just like when they closed down Sewall Center two years ago, they did it by winning the tournament championship game.
“We celebrated conference championship there; same thing in this building,” Buscaglia said. “It’s nostalgic to shut the door.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .