BY JAKE OSWALT
The fourth-seeded St. Francis women’s basketball team made the critical plays at the end of each half to defeat fifth-seeded Central Connecticut State, 66-63, to advance to Wednesday’s Northeast Conference semifinal at Sacred Heart.
Sunday marked the rubber game between the two rivals. St. Francis defeated CCSU, 67-62, at home Jan. 7 before the Blue Devils returned the favor just six days ago, 76-71.
CCSU (16-14) took a 63-60 lead with 1:32 left in the game on a Lauren Arbogast 3-pointer.
After that, it was all St. Francis (16-14).
SFU junior forward Alli Williams was fouled on the next possession and made both free throws to trail by a point. CCSU guard Jaclyn Babe was called for an offensive foul to give the ball back to St. Francis. Williams made a leaning, underhand scoop layup with 27 seconds left to give the Red Flash a 64-63 lead. CCSU’s Jessica Babe missed a floater in the key as Williams grabbed the rebound and was fouled. Williams calmly made both free throws once again for a three-point lead. CCSU pushed the ball upcourt to get a good look for Arbogast from behind the arc, only to have the shot hit the back iron at the buzzer.
“The St. Francis players made the big plays when they needed to make the big plays down the wire,” CCSU coach Beryl Piper said.
“It was a hard-fought game and there’s a lot of little intangibles that make a difference in winning and losing a game like today. That was a good four versus five seed matchup game.”
Williams, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds for her 23rd double-double of the season, knew it was going to be a physical and competitive game, since a semifinal berth was at stake for the winner.
“We worked hard this week in practice, we did a lot of scrimmaging. We prepared a lot, we knew it was going to be a battle and we stuck it out and I’m really proud of us.”
The other momentum swing happened at the end of the first half when CCSU led by 12 with 5:28 left.
St. Francis forced four turnovers in that span and scored four points in the last six seconds to gain momentum and only trail by three at the half. Rebecca Keegan (nine points, 11 rebounds) and Nickia Gibbs (20 points) combined for 10 of the points in a 13-4 run.
CCSU shot 54 percent from the field in the first half. St. Francis’ nine offensive rebounds and second chance points kept them within striking distance.
Despite good defense against her all game, Jaclyn Babe scored 27 points on 12-of-17 shooting.
“She’s a great player, one of the leading scorers in the conference,” said Gibbs, who spent most of her time defensively guarding Babe.
SFU coach Joe Haigh said, “Sometimes when you give it everything you got and the girl still hits a shot on you, that can be really deflating. Jackie Babe, a great player who played a great game, she hit some really tough shots. I thought we did a great job defending her and she still scored 27 on us. We did a great job when things went against us, we really responded well. I’m really proud of our team.”
CCSU’s Kirsten Daamen finished with 14 points. SFU’s Rebecca Sparks provided 12 points and four assists.
St. Francis now moves on to play at Sacred Heart (22-9), which beat the Red Flash both meetings this year. That does not have any bearing for forward Shene Fleming (game-high 14 rebounds).
“I think the beauty of the tournament is that all of that is over. Every team starts fresh, every team that we play now is 1-0 just like us,” Fleming said. “I don’t think we should go into this week thinking about that. I think we need to focus on us. … I think we have the advantage, I really do.”