FAIRFIELD, Conn. — For Sal Buscaglia, there will be another game.
The longtime Robert Morris coach who has announced his retirement, effective at the end of this season, will lead the Colonials at least one more time as they head to the NCAA tournament after holding off Sacred Heart, 56-51, in the Northeast Conference tournament championship to capture the league’s automatic bid Sunday at William H. Pitt Center.
“I always told them, ‘believe,’ ” Buscaglia said, one of the championship nets sticking out of his back pocket.
“We kept telling them to believe in each other. Even when we were going through some tough times, I kept telling them we were going to be the team that never gives up.”
And the Colonials didn’t. In advancing into the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons, and for the sixth time overall in program history, they led from start to finish in ending what had been a Sacred Heart run for the ages, 11 consecutive wins and 18 out of 19. But Robert Morris did everything it had to do, making huge plays down the stretch to punch its NCAA dance card.
“My players did a marvelous job, beating two great teams on the road [including Bryant in the semifinals],” Buscaglia said. “Sacred Heart had a great run, but we knew coming in that we could get the job done.”
Ashley Ravelli — who led RMU with 14 points — hit two free throws with 12.6 seconds left to give the Colonials a three-point lead, and when Sacred Heart missed a chance at a tying 3-point attempt, Janee Brown iced the victory with two more free throws with 2.2 to play. When the final horn sounded, Robert Morris celebrated in a big pile at midcourt.
“Over the last six, seven games, we’ve really come together,” Buscaglia said. “The kids started buying into the offense. It’s credit to them.”
Ravelli hit two 3s in the opening quarter as the Colonials opened a 19-14 lead at the end of the first and maintained a 31-27 advantage at halftime. A big factor in Robert Morris getting, and controlling, the momentum was holding Sacred Heart to just 33.3 percent shooting and three 3s.
“We knew coming into the game that we had to work hard. Our work ethic had to be 150 percent,” Ravelli said. “Every time they made a run, we held it together and made some stops and got the defense going again.”
Ravelli hit a pull-up jumper to open the third quarter and start a 9-2 run that pushed the Colonials lead to 40-31 and Robert Morris took a 45-39 lead into the final quarter. Back-to-back baskets from Sacred Heart’s Shelby Hickey got the Pioneers within 47-45 with 6:55 to play, and one Adaysha Williams free throw made it 52-51 with 13.8 seconds left. After Ravelli’s free throws made it 54-51, Sacred Heart’s final play got bogged down in the Colonials defense and Robert Morris held on for the win.
“We had a lot of downs this season and [Buscaglia] never once stopped believing in us,” Ravelli said. “We fought with some confidence issues through the season, but he kept saying that he wasn’t going to give up on us.”
Stamolamprou added 10 points and eight rebounds for Robert Morris (20-13). NEC player of the year Hannah Kimmel lead Sacred Heart with 13 points but did not score in the second half.
First Published March 13, 2016 5:23 PM