KEYSTONE STATE CONTINGENT TOPS #NECWBB PRESEASON COACHES’ POLL AGAIN
Brooklyn, NY - The Northeast Conference Women’s Basketball Championship trophy has found a home in the Keystone State in eight of the past 12 seasons. The results of the NEC’s annual preseason coaches’ poll suggests that the trend will continue on into the 2018-19 campaign. Robert Morris, which has made five consecutive NEC Championship Game appearances, earned five first-place votes to secure the moniker of “preseason favorite.” Defending conference champion Saint Francis U, which won an unprecedented 12th NEC Tournament crown last winter, pulled in two top nods and finished as the runner-up in the preseason predicted order-of-finish. Sacred Heart, which owns the longest active streak of consecutive NEC Tournament appearances, secured the three remaining first-place votes while finishing in third. Bryant took fourth place in the poll, one spot ahead of a fifth-place tie involving St. Francis Brooklyn and Mount St. Mary’s. LIU Brooklyn was slotted into the seventh spot followed by Central Connecticut in eighth. Goethals Bridge rivals Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner rounded out the preseason selections in ninth and tenth, respectively. Head coaches from all 10 NEC teams participated in the poll, which prohibits voters from ranking their own teams. The NEC announced the poll results along with a five-member Preseason All-Conference Team during the seventh annual #NECinNYC Basketball Social Media Day at Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn. Following a seven-year run of incorrectly predicting the eventual NEC Tournament champion, the preseason coaches’ poll has gotten it right in four of the prior six seasons. The NEC crowned its first women’s basketball champion in 1987, but the league did not begin conducting a preseason poll until prior to the 1993-94 season. All 10 NEC teams will play a double round-robin conference schedule during the 2018-19 regular season with the top-eight finishers qualifying for the 33rd annual NEC Women’s Basketball Tournament. Following a one-year experimentation with a “pod” format, the eight-team postseason event returns to its prior configuration in which higher seeded teams host all games at campus sites. The 2019 NEC Championship Game, which will be played at the home site of the highest remaining seed, will reach a national television audience for the 12th consecutive year via ESPNU. The title tilt, which will determine the recipient of the NEC’s automatic bid to the Big Dance, is set for March 17 at 2:00 pm ET. Last year, Saint Francis U lived up to its preseason billing. After sharing the 2017-18 regular season title with Robert Morris, Joe Haigh’s Red Flash posted three consecutive double-digit victories to claim the NEC Tournament crown. SFU topped regular season co-champ RMU, 66-56, in the title tilt. Robert Morris returns 75 percent of its roster from last year’s record-setting campaign, including three of the team’s top-four scorers. Head coach Charlie Buscaglia, who employed a nine-player rotation last winter, has two Brenda Reilly NEC Coach of the Year awards to show for his two seasons at the helm. Buscaglia, who served as the RMU’s associate head coach prior to his promotion in 2016, guided the Colonials to a program-record 25 overall victories in Year No. 2. Robert Morris has led the conference in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense throughout Buscaglia’s two-year head coaching tenure. Junior center Nneka Ezeigbo (Ewing, NJ) who earned a spot on the All-NEC Second Team as a sophomore, led the Colonials’ well-balanced lineup in scoring (10.4 ppg) and rebounding (7.0). Sophomores Honoka Ikematsu (Kumamoto, Japan) and Megan Callahan (Bristow, VA), who made 32 starts apiece as rookies, both averaged more than 10.0 points per conference game while respectively ranking third and fourth amongst NEC three-point field goal percentage leaders. Ikematsu, who hit 41.4 percent from downtown, earned NEC All-Rookie status for her efforts. Saint Francis, which has been amongst the nation’s leaders in offensive possession for much of head coach Joe Haigh’s six-year tenure, rode its up-tempo style to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. Two-thirds of the Flash’s roster, including the reigning NEC Player of the Year, returns from the 24-win season that ended at the hand of National No. 1 seed UConn. Senior guard Jessica Kovatch (Phillipsburg, NJ), who became the sixth in SFU history to win the NEC Player of the Year accolade, has the conference’s career scoring record in her crosshairs. Kovatch, who averaged 24.4 points per outing as a junior, enters the season 180 points shy of former WNBA Draft pick Jess Zinobile’s all-time mark (2,338). Senior center Courtney Zezza () brings 95 games of experience to this year’s squad, which features eight underclasswomen. The 6-foot-3 Zezza averaged 7.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last season while ranking second amongst league leaders in blocks (2.0 bpg). Sacred Heart returns a pair of double-digit scorers – guard Erin Storck (Commack, NY) and center Katherine Haines (Ridgefield Park, NJ). The former averaged 11.2 points per contest while Haines, who won the 2017 NEC Most Improved Player award, accounted for 12.1 points and 8.3 boards per outing. Bryant returns a trio of NEC statistical leaders from last season. Junior Sydney Holloway (Morgantown, WV) averaged a league-best 10.8 rebounds per game and posted a NEC-high 17 double-doubles. Senior point guard Kierra Palmer (), who could become the seventh woman in NEC history to dish out 500 assists over a career, has paced the circuit in assists each of the last two years. Senior guard Naomi Ashley led the NEC in steals (2.8 spg). St. Francis Brooklyn is home to the lone new head coach in the NEC this season. Former America East Coach of the Year Linda Cimino inherits an experienced group featuring four returning starters, including preseason all-NEC guard Jade Johnson (Adelaide, Austrailia). Mount St. Mary’s welcomes back all-rookie selection Daly Sullivan (South Bend, IN) as well as 2018 NEC Most Improved Player Juliette Lawless (Mahopac, NY). Central Connecticut’s lineup features battled-tested seniors Kiana Patterson (Troy, NY) and Andi Lydon (Allison Park, PA). The former, a preseason all-NEC selection, ranked sixth amongst league scoring leaders at 13.9 points per contest.