Artemis Spanou had just finished off the 86th double-double of her career, but her wide smile was a clear indication that this one meant more.
For all of her accomplishments -- the scoring records, the incredible rebounding statistics and consecutive conference player of the year awards -- she had yet to reach the NCAA tournament, the end goal for any team in a small conference.
Sunday afternoon, that all changed.
The senior center had a game-high 30 points and 20 rebounds as Robert Morris used a first-half run to seize control in a 78-64 victory against Saint Francis in the Northeast Conference women's championship at Sewall Center.
"It's the perfect ending for our senior year," Spanou said. "We wanted this since we came here as freshmen."
The win gives the Colonials (21-11) their first NCAA tournament berth since 2008. They are widely projected to be a No. 16 seed and will find out their opponent on tonight's selection show.
The NEC tournament championship is the program's fifth.
"In all the years I've been coaching, almost 40, this is not just coach-talk -- this is the finest journey that I've been a part of as far as quality of kid, quality of student, quality of person," Robert Morris coach Sal Buscaglia said. "It's been amazing, the family atmosphere we have on this team. I couldn't sleep last night, saying 'I've got to do the best coaching job I've ever done because I just can't let these kids down.' "
Minutes after finding themselves in an early 9-2 hole, the Colonials scored 12 unanswered points to take a 28-16 lead, one they extended to 32-18 by halftime as the Red Flash (15-17) made just one field goal in the final 10:03. In the first half alone, Spanou had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Saint Francis trimmed its deficit to seven after a 3-pointer from guard Alexa Hayward with 8:48 remaining, but Spanou responded with a 3 of her own on the other end. In the final two minutes, the Red Flash again got within seven, but a 3-point play from Colonials forward Kelly Hartwell with 1:32 remaining ended any realistic hope of a comeback.
"The second half was more to our style, but we dug too big of a hole in the first half," Saint Francis coach Joe Haigh said. "It's disappointing. It just didn't go the way our games have gone the past two weeks."
Guard Anna Niki Stamolamprou was the only other Robert Morris player to finish in double figures, scoring 16 points to go with six rebounds and three assists. As a team, the Colonials shot 50.9 percent, including 40 percent from 3-point range.
Alli Williams had 21 points and 13 rebounds for Saint Francis, which shot just 30.6 percent.
As Spanou walked toward her team after accepting the tournament's most valuable player award, she frantically ran in place and was greeted with open arms.
It took four years for her to get to this moment, but now that it had arrived, things couldn't have worked out better.
"I'm extremely proud of this team," Spanou said. "I'm really happy we made it.
"Cutting down this net and holding it here, it's unbelievable. I'm going to keep this little piece forever and I'm going to remember this game and these four years got done this way -- the perfect way."
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
First Published March 16, 2014 5:25 PM