St. Francis Brooklyn had all the sentimental value on their side heading into Tuesday’s NEC final. We don’t have to rehash the curse of never having been to the NCAA Tournament here, you’ve seen it, surely.
But sentimental value doesn’t make shots for you, nor does it let you figure out a pesky zone against an opponent whose NCAA drought was only five years, but probably seemed like a lifetime for what had been the dominant team in the conference for that time.
Second-seeded Robert Morris made big shots when it had to and closed up shop at the other end as they will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 with a 66-63 win at the Pope P.E. Center in front of a more-than-capacity crowd (announced at 1,013) that went home heartbroken.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but I’m also proud of my guys,” St. Francis Brooklyn coach Glenn Braica said. “After starting 0-5, we won 23 games, and we’ll be going to the NIT for the first time since 1963. It doesn’t take away from what these guys did this year. Even with the disappointment, this atmosphere we had tonight, no one thought that was possible as St. Francis Brooklyn, and these guys created it.”
Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones, the two players that led the Terriers to a 23-11 record and the regular season NEC title, were keyed on and neutralized by the Colonials (19-14). Cannon finished with his 21st double-double of the season, but had just 10 points, while Jones managed just seven points before fouling out in the final minute.
“It’s not a great matchup, to be honest with you,” Braica said. “They’ve done a great job in their zone of adjusting. They take away our inside game and that’s our strength. Whenever Brent got the ball, they jumped to him and they did a great job on ball screens. They played great defense.”
Said Robert Morris coach Andy Toole: “Obviously we know those two guys are the key to their team. We just tried to keep a body on Jalen and just wall up and just be strong. We wanted to make sure he had to score over us and we’ve had some success with us.”
Still, the Terriers – thanks largely to a 67.3% offensive rebounding rate – led 35-29 at the half and actually extended it to seven before the duo of Rodney Prior and Lucky Jones started to go to work. Prior hit a pair of tough threes and Jones finished off the 9-0 run with one of his own and Robert Morris never trailed again.
The Colonials started the season 2-8 and finished three games behind St. Francis Brooklyn in the regular season, with Toole having to deal with suspensions of several players, including Jones in mid-season. But their relatively young lineup has played its best basketball when it mattered most, and looked composed for the most part down the stretch, with the exception of a couple of turnovers late that allowed the Terriers to creep back into the game.
“I think we knew we always had the talent to be here, but we had to really come together as a team,” Toole said. “Now we’ve won six straight and we’ve really come together.”
But after another Prior three gave Robert Morris a 57-47 lead with 6:53 left, St. Francis Brooklyn – buoyed by the sellout crowd and remarkable atmosphere inside the Pope Center – made one last run. Jewell and Sanabria hit threes to draw them closer and when Sanabria hit another with 17 seconds left, the Terriers were within 64-63. Then with 2.4 seconds left and SFC down 66-63, Jewell was fouled on a three-pointer, but missed the first two before missing the third intentionally, but missing the rim entirely.
After Robert Morris missed two free throws at the other end, Lowell Ulmer nearly tied it on a 70-footer at the buzzer, but it bounced agonizingly off the back of the rim, quieting the SFC fans and sending the visiting Colonials back to the NCAA Tournament.
“After all these years, I figured that was going in,” Braica said. “It was online.”
Toole had done everything but win the league tournament in his first four years at Robert Morris (although he does have an NIT win over Kentucky), this was his fourth final and the only season he didn’t make the finals, he won the NEC regular season before being upset in the semifinals.
Prior, who was named MVP of the tournament, scored 17 points to lead a balanced Robert Morris attack. Elijah Minnie hit some big shots (6-7 FG) and added 14 points, Lucky Jones had 12, and Kavon Stewart – who was a steadying factor at point guard for most of the night, especially with Marcquise Reed in foul trouble – scored 11 points and added six assists.
While the Colonials are likely headed to Dayton for the play-in games next week, St. Francis Brooklyn – despite the NCAA drought continuing – will play in the NIT, most likely on the road.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed, we’re all disappointed, but I’m also proud of my guys. After starting 0-5, we won 23 games, and we’ll be going to the NIT. It doesn’t take away from what these guys did this year. Even with the disappointment, this atmosphere we had tonight, no one thought that was possible as St. Francis Brooklyn, and these guys created it.”