Fairfield, Conn.—The Sacred Heart women's basketball team won its third Northeast Conference Championship Sunday afternoon, claiming the NEC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In front of the third largest crowd in Sacred Heart women's basketball history, the Pioneers topped Monmouth 58-48 for their third title in the last seven years.
"I couldn't be prouder of this group," said Head Coach Ed Swanson. "This team had to climb through a lot of hurdles and really work hard. They really bought in and persevered. They responded to every challenge thrown at them. That is what I will remember about this team, we responded every time."
Monmouth got the ball off the tip, getting it to Alysha Womack who took it to the hoop for the first points of the game. Ericka Norman (Chino Hills, Calif.) answered with a trey from the top of the key on the next possession.
The teams exchanged possessions and points before Alexis Campbell (Ashburn, Va.), who has had the hot hand in the first two games of the tournament, landed a jumper to put Sacred Heart on top 7-6 and send them off on a 21-4 run.
The Hawks scored six points over the first six minutes of the game, and then only managed six more over the next twelve. On the flip side, the Pioneers opened 12-of-17 from the field, including eight-straight makes.
"We really fell back on our defense and dug in," said Swanson. "(We) forced them into turnovers and got a great defensive effort."
Blair Koniszewski hit a three from the left wing making it 19-8 Pioneers and forcing Monmouth into a timeout. The Hawks held NEC Player of the Year Callan Taylor (Overland Park, Kan.) scoreless for the first 10 minutes of the game but with 9:16 left in the half, Taylor laid one in, boosting Sacred Heart's lead to 26-10.
With 4:06 left in the half, Taylor nailed two free throws making it 30-12 Pioneers but SHU would go stone cold the rest of the way. Monmouth held SHU scoreless until the buzzer, allowing them to cut the lead down to just 10 points, 30-20.
The Hawks kept it going to start the second half, outscoring the Pioneers 1-7 into the 11:49 media time-out pulling to within 37-35. MU's Betsy Gadziala sunk a layup on a put back to knot the game at 37-37 with 11:15 left. From there the Pioneers ran away from the Hawks, outscoring Monmouth 21-11 the rest of the way.
Taylor, who finished just two-of-10 on the night, buried her biggest shotof the night, drilling a triple from the left corner to put the Pioneers back on top for good.
"Callan hit a big three and that loosened us up a bit," said Swanson. "You see us start to breathe and there is a new hop in our step."
Monmouth cut it to 46-41 but junior Morgan Merriman (Seattle, WA) went to work down in the post and converted three-straight lay-ups to help put the stamp on a Pioneer victory.
Named Tournament MVP, Norman totaled a game-high 18 points with six steals. She finished the game shooting 75% from the field (6-8) and was a perfect five-for-five from the charity stripe. Over the three games, Norman averaged 13.0 ppg with 13 rebounds and 21 assists.
Washington scored 13 with six rebounds. Merriman finished with 11 points off the bench.
Joining Norman on the NEC All-Tournament team was Taylor.
The Pioneers will find out where they are going for round one of the NCAA Tournament tomorrow at 7 p.m. during the Selection Show on ESPN.