MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. (AP) Artemis Spanou admired the six-inch white string in her hand, the physical proof that she wasn’t dreaming.
”I’m going to keep this little piece forever,” Spanou said.
The Robert Morris forward certainly earned it.
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Spanou lifted the Colonials into the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years on Sunday, scoring 30 points to go with 20 rebounds and six assists as Robert Morris held off St. Francis (Pa.) 78-64 in the Northeastern Conference championship game.
A steadying presence whenever the top-seeded Colonials (21-11) ran into trouble, the two-time NEC Player of the Year keyed an 18-2 first-half run that broke the game open in the first half and found a way to make something happen whenever the Red Flash (15-17) threated in the second.
”She played like player of the year today,” St. Francis coach Joe Haigh said. ”She did what we’ve seen from her for 3-4 years.”
Anna Niki Stamolamprou added 16 points, six rebounds and three assists for the Colonials, who kept Red Flash star Alli Williams in check during the first half and weathered a series of St. Francis runs in the second.
”It’s the perfect ending for our senior year,” Spanou said after being chosen the tournament MVP. ”We wanted this since we came here as freshman … I’m just really happy and really proud of the team. We overcome some tough stuff. We got the ring.”
And stopped the seemingly unstoppable Williams in the process.
The senior forward finished with 21 points but managed only two of them came in the first half Robert Morris built a 14-point lead. The Red Flash never drew closer than seven and struggled to duplicate the high-octane offense that carried the third-seed to the finals.
The Red Flash’s 64 points were their second-lowest of the season and their lowest against a conference opponent.
St. Francis had surged into the finals with a 132-124 double-overtime win over Sacred Heart and a 68-63 upset of Mount St. Mary’s in the semifinals. The run ended under an array of missed shots and defensive breakdowns. The Red Flash shot just 19 of 62 (31 percent) from the field and were outscored in the paint 36-14, as Spanou and her teammates had their way inside.
”Unfortunately we’ve gone through patches like that often during the year,” Haigh said. ”We’ve had times when we’ve struggled to score. We’re not the best halfcourt offense team in the world. We need to get turnovers and pressure and get running.”
It never happened, thanks in part to Spanou, who knocked down a pair of 3-pointers, came up with two steals and seemed to be around the ball after every St. Francis missed shot. When the Red Flash tried to double-team her, she found an open teammate, usually right underneath the hoop.
”Whenever we would light a fire, they would hit a three or an and-one or something and it would go right out,” St. Francis guard Alexa Hayward said.
Still, the jitters that doomed the Robert Morris men’s team in a home loss to Mount St. Mary’s in conference finals last week made a brief reappearance with the women.
St. Francis raced to a quick 9-2 before the Colonials settled down to take control. Navarro and Spanou keyed a 17-2 surge as the Red Flash struggled to get anything going. Williams missed all five of her field goal attempts and Robert Morris used the backboard to slow the game down, using seven offensive rebounds to extend possessions then taking advantage of the second – and sometimes third – chances.
The result was a 32-18 halftime lead for the Colonials as St. Francis shot just 6 of 30 (20 percent) from the field.
The Red Flash managed to speed things up a bit in the second half by going to a full-court trap, but never put Robert Morris in any real danger.
Williams shot just 4 of 11 from the field and missed all three of her 3-point attempts. Though she went 13 of 16 at the line, she wasn’t the force that poured in 40 points or more four times this year, including consecutive 47-point performances earlier this month.
Williams’ lay-up drew St. Francis within 68-61 with 1:49 to play but Spanou hit a streaking Kelly Hartwell for a lay-up. Hartwell was fouled on the play and made the free throw (hardly a given on a day Robert Morris went just 18 of 36 at the stripe) and the final minute turned into a celebration with students storming the court after the final buzzer sounded.