Three times in his previous four seasons coach Andy Toole took Robert Morris to the Northeastern Conference tournament finals, and three times the Colonials had to watch their opponents cut down the nets and celebrate an NCAA bid.
In front of a raucous crowd, packed tightly into the one of the smallest gyms in Division I, Toole and his team never wilted. No more waiting until next year for the Colonials.
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Rodney Pryor sparked a second-half surge and Robert Morris denied St. Francis, Brooklyn, its first NCAA tournament bid, beating the Terriers 66-63 for Northeast Conference championship on Tuesday night.
"A lot of my friends have been calling me Marv Levy because we haven’t won the big one," the 34-year-old Toole said, referring to the former Buffalo Bills’ coach who lost four straight Super Bowls. "It’s nice that I can call them back and tell them we finally won one."
The top-seeded Terriers (23-11) had a chance to tie with 2.4 seconds left when Tyreek Jewell, who scored 19 points and was their best player on this night, went to the line after being fouled shooting a desperation 3-pointer.
Jewell missed the first, back-ending the shot and then the second. He intentionally missed the last one, but Robert Morris got the ball back and was quickly fouled. Lucky Jones missed a free throw that would have sealed it and Lowell Ulmer’s heave from beyond half-court hit the back of the rim, took a high bounce and then missed again.
It was Robert Morris and their fans celebrating as the SFC crowd lamented the Terriers’ third NEC title game loss, but first since 2003. St. Francis is one of just five original Division I teams, dating back to 1948, that has never made the NCAA tournament.
As NEC regular season champions the Terriers get an NIT bid, their first postseason appearance since they went to the NIT in 1963.
"They can look back at a regular-season title. A lot of personal accolades. And postseason in the NIT for the first time in 52 years," St. Francis coach Glenn Braica said. "I think that’s pretty good. I think a lot of guys in this country would like to have that."
Second-seeded Robert Morris (19-15) is going back to the tournament for the first time since 2010.
"It breaks your heart sometimes as a coach that we’ve had teams that have been so close and not been able to get over the hump," Toole said. "And that’s why we push, and we push and we push, all the time. To be able to perform and play in this kind of atmosphere and this kind of stage."
The Colonials and Terriers split two close games during the regular season, with each winning on the road.
"When we got the win in the regular season we knew that we can win coming into this building," Pryor, who capped a 16-3 second-half with a baseline jumper and a 3 to put Robert Morris up 57-47 with 6:53 left.
Pryor finished with 17 points and earned tournament MVP honors.
The Colonials, their enthusiastic fans and their band made themselves comfortable in the cramped quarters of Division I’s fourth-smallest gym. The Pope PE Center, capacity is listed at 1,200 but who really knows, was crowded and loud. Robert Morris was unfazed.
Using a confounding zone, Robert Morris limited the touches for NEC player of the year Jalen Cannon and held him to 10 points. Point guard Brent Jones (seven points and four turnovers) also struggled before fouling out.
"I wasn’t myself," Jones said. "Just thinking about not turning the ball over."
Glenn Sanabria of St. Francis made a long 3 from straight on with 16.2 seconds left to cut Robert Morris’ lead to 64-63 and put the Pope Center on the brink of bursting with chants of" S-F-C!!"
Jones went to the line and swished both free throws with 13.8 remaining to make it a three-point game for Robert Morris.
Yunus Hopkinson missed a corner 3 for St. Francis with time winding down, but Jewell tracked down the rebound and spun and fired from the wing. Elijah Minnie slammed into Jewell to put the junior at the line, but the 65-percent foul shooter couldn’t make the shots.
Toole said he’s not worried about seeding, but it’s a good possibility the Colonials will end up in Daytona, Ohio, playing another potential 16 seed in the First Four. He’s just looking forward to watching the selections on Sunday with his team.
"It’s one of the best feelings in sports," Toole said. "I’m glad they get to experience it."