RMU women to play North Carolina St. in NCAA tourney
The Northeast Conference trophy, placed on a table Monday night, reflected the ambience of a dimly lit room inside Sewall Center, Robert Morris' cozy on-campus arena. A modest group of onlookers, including an anxious women's basketball team, watched a big-screen TV.
There was, indeed, a feeling of anticipation, as NEC champion Robert Morris awaited word on its first NCAA Tournament assignment.
As soon as it was revealed that the Colonials had become only the second 13th-seed team from the NEC to play in the NCAA Tournament and that they would be facing fourth-seeded North Carolina State in a first-round game of the Fresno Region at noon Sunday in Raleigh, N.C., the high-fives commenced.
"It was unbelievable to look at that name come up. You go, 'Wow!' " said Robert Morris guard Jenna Burkett, one of only two current four-year players with the program. "Especially for the seniors, like myself, it's the best feeling in the world."
Robert Morris (24-7), which defeated Sacred Heart, 68-66, in the NEC tournament championship game Saturday to earn an automatic bid, is the first team from the NEC to claim a 13th seed since Mt. St. Mary's (Md.) lost to fourth-seeded Alabama, 82-55, in a first-round game in 1995.
The NEC has been a traditional bottom-feeder in NCAA Division I, with none of its teams having won a tournament game. Besides the two No. 13 seeds, there have been three No. 14 seeds. Mt. St. Mary's did it in 1994 and St. Francis (Pa.) in 2000 and 2005.
Under fourth-year coach Sal Buscaglia, Robert Morris has gone from a classic bottom-feeder -- the Colonials were 3-24 in 2003 -- to the class of the league by earning its first postseason appearance.
"Any realist would say it'd be tough if you came to a program with a 3-24 record and within four years you'd make the NCAA Tournament and be a 13-seed," Buscaglia said. "Even with myself, I would never have thought that in four years we'd be in this fast and be a 13th seed this quickly.
"Our kids get along really well. We're on the same page."
Come Sunday, Robert Morris will need to unite like never before against North Carolina State (23-9), which earned an at-large bid after losing to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game.
The Wolfpack, ranked 17th in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, are the only team to defeat No. 1 Duke (30-1) this season.
Robert Morris, which finished in a three-way tie with Sacred Heart and Long Island for first place in the NEC regular season with a 15-3 record, is hoping to make a better showing than its conference predecessors in first-round games.
The closest margin of victory against a NEC team is 15, when St. Francis (Pa.), as a No. 15 seed, dropped a 51-36 decision to second-seeded Villanova in 2003.
"I know what damage we can do, who we can be," said Robert Morris senior forward Sugiery Monsac, who ranks second in scoring (16.1 ppg.) and rebounding (9.3 rpg.) for the Colonials. "If we play hard, we can do whatever we want."