Teaneck, NJ - It’s called ‘March Madness’ for a reason. It’s a time of excitement and exhilaration. A time of disappointment and sadness. Emotions run the gamut through this month, unlike any other on the college basketball calendar.
This is a phenomena, one following the game is aware of, but was reinforced yesterday. Sacred Heart defeated FDU 72-60 in the Northeast Conference final. The game Sunday at FDU’s Rothman Center saw the Pioneers punch their ticket to the ‘Big Dance’. FDU will head to a second straight WNIT. For the Knights, the NEC’s regular season champion, it was truly heartbreaking.
Moments following the final buzzer there were tears on both sides. Sacred Heart had a few players shedding tears of joy during the celebration. As the FDU team slowly left the court, fighting back tears was an impossible situation.
The game had eight lead changes and five ties. Definitely fitting for a tournament final. As Sacred Heart coach Jessica Mannetti said, "you couldn’t write a better script for a championship game." Interestingly, in a game that captivated everyone with its excitement, Sacred Heart remained composed. "I saw it at breakfast this morning," Mannetti said. "The team was relaxed. They knew what they had to do. Not a bit of fear."
One of the things they knew was to get the ball in the hands of Ny’Ceara Pryor, especially at crunch time. All of 5’3", the Sacred Heart backcourt dynamo proved ‘it’s not how big you are but how big you play’. A game-high 20 point scorer, scored several key buckets in a 12-0 Sacred Heart game deciding run over the last four minutes. "She (Pryor) was defended but made shots that were not easy," lamented FDU coach Ang Szumilo. "She’s a phenomenal player," the coach added. . "We have confidence in her (Pryor), " teammate Olivia Tucker, a 16 point scorer said. "We just know she will make a play."
A Baltimore native, Pryor grew up watching and being captivated by ‘March Madness’. Especially Final Fours with the likes of UConn and Notre Dame in the field. Now, she admits, "I am just excited to be a part of it."
Sacred Heart earned its first NEC title since 2012 prompting Mannetti to say, "the feeling is unbelievable. It’s hard to describe and FDU is so tough, we have so much respect for them."
When teams drop the last game of a tournament final, often times that ends their season. In FDU’s case, they know the campaign will continue. The Knights won the NEC regular season title, guaranteeing a WNIT bid. As much as they recognize the prestige of qualifying for and appearing in the WNIT, the realization of just missing a first trip to the Big Dance in three decades really hurt.
"We started turning the program around my freshman year," said Sierra DeAngelo. Her eyes still red showing the trace of post game emotion, the FDU senior forward continued. "The last two years we lost in the semifinals. This year we wanted it so bad. The program is just getting better (each year)....We came up short (today) but we are not done yet."
Szumilo immediately started to reverse the fortunes at FDU, upon her 2019 arrival from across the Hudson River. A Fordham assistant to defensive minded Stephanie Gaitley at Fordham, She stressed an emphasis and excellence on that end of the court. Szumilo could very well touch on the feeling of the moment and the emotions her group were dealing with. "Right now it doesn’t feel like we have done anything," she said. "Later they will realize the accomplishments they have had."
After discussing costly late game turnovers and Pryor’s remarkable play in the stretch, the FDU mentor emphasized, "we wanted to get into the NCAAS." Badly. She experienced it as a player and an assistant coach. She wanted it for her players and all of the NEC school’s faithful, who haven't seen the Knights in the Big Dance for roughly three decades. FDU came up short. Chloe Wilson, FDU’s outstanding junior forward, a 19 point scorer on the day, spoke of the resilience of the group. Szumilo echoed Wilson’s remarks adding, "We accept and look forward to being in the WNIT. And we will be ready."
Following the post game presser, Mannetti, the cut down net around her neck, exchanged congratulatory hugs from well wishers. Her players meeting with family and friends snapped pictures-savoring the moment. Szumilo graciously greeted well wishers before heading to the office. Her players exited the locker room, slowly and quietly filing out of Rothman Center.
The game, as Mannetti said, was eminently worthy of a championship contest. The post game scenes epitomized the stark contrast in emotion. It’s all a part of what we call ‘March Madness’. And it’s undoubtedly a major reason why this time of year is so special for all involved.