LORETTO, Pa. — Her team ahead but not comfortably so, Saint Francis star Jessica Kovatch’s left ankle turned awkwardly. The ball slipped out of her hands amid copious amounts of contact.
A minute later, the Northeastern Conference Player of the Year hobbled to the bench nervous that the NCAA Tournament berth the Red Flash have been chasing for months was in jeopardy as Robert Morris swarmed.
So Kovatch spent 129 seconds on the bench next to coach Joe Haigh. Her nerves settled. Saint Francis’ lead remained largely intact. And when she returned, the nation’s second-leading scorer helped seal the Red Flash’s first NCAA trip in seven years.
Kovatch poured in 29 points, including seven over the final 6:10 as top-seeded Saint Francis held off the second-seeded Colonials 66-56 to reach the NCAAs for the 12th time in the program’s history. The Red Flash did it by forcing 10 turnovers in the fourth quarter and relying on Kovatch to fight through the double teams and the contact that seem to follow her wherever she goes.
The junior guard, who scored a record 103 points during Saint Francis’ three-game run through the NEC tournament on her way to being named the Most Valuable player, shrugged off the pain in her ankle. If anything, it was a blessing.
“Had to (regroup) myself,” Kovatch said. “I’m pretty emotional when I play. I had my teammates calm me down a little.”
Kovatch left with Saint Francis (24-9) up 10. When she checked back in, the Red Flash led by eight. She then drilled a couple of free throws, turned a steal into a layup before converting a traditional 3-point play with 1:31 to go that finally put the Colonials away.
Caitlyn Kroll added 12 points and 10 rebounds for Saint Francis, which pulled away over the final 15 minutes after Robert Morris (25-7) briefly moved In front.
“Coming into the second half, we talked about just picking it up on defense,” Kovatch said.
The Red Flash did it by pressing whenever the chance arose in the fourth quarter in an effort to slow the Colonials down. It worked. Robert Morris shot just 34 percent (22 for 65) on the game and went 4 of 14 over the final 10 minutes.
“We did a good job containing them for a while,” Colonials coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “I felt like we were really executing our game plan well (but) it’s really tough for 40 minutes. We had some miscues where they got loose.”
Jocelynne Jones led Robert Morris with a career-high 21 points and Mikalah Mulrain and Megan Smith added 10 points each but the Colonials lost their composure late. Robert Morris forced Saint Francis into 23 turnovers but only converted those mistakes into just eight points. The Red Flash finished with 21 points off turnovers, including 14 in the fourth.
“They started to run and double us and we didn’t handle it very well,” Buscaglia said.
The Red Flash, who blew out the Colonials at DeGol Arena five weeks ago, appeared ready to go it again early. Kovatch drilled a stepback 3-pointer and then added a 28-footer as Saint Francis sprinted to a 13-2 lead. Robert Morris slowly fought its way back into things, tying it up at halftime thanks in large part to freshman guard Nina Augustin.
The 5-foot-6 Augustin hounded the 5-9 Kovatch, picking up the NEC’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made at halfcourt and disrupting the Red Flash’s offensive flow in the process. The harassment allowed Robert Morris to climb back into the game and a pair of 3-pointers by Jones allowed the Colonials to pull in front 40-39 with 5:07 to go in the third.
That was it. Robert Morris managed just two baskets over the next 10 minutes and the Red Flash were ahead to stay.
Robert Morris: The Colonials lose four seniors but in freshmen Augustin, Megan Callahan and Honoka Ikematsu won’t lack for options in the backcourt next season.
Saint Francis: Head coach Joe Haigh finished the rebuilding process he started after a 6-23 mark in 2014-15 by staying positive. It paid off with a dominant year.
Robert Morris: Bascaglia said a school-record 25 wins earned the Colonials a berth in the WNIT.
Saint Francis: As a likely 16-seed in the NCAAs, the Red Flash will have their hands full when the tournament starts later this week.