A national television audience followed the ball’s flight on ESPN2.
There wasn’t much hanging in the balance.
Only the difference between overtime, and St. Francis’ first shot at an NCAA Tournament bid since 1948…or another disappointing season without a trip to March Madness.
Ultimately, the ball clanked off the rim, bounced up and No. 2-seeded Robert Morris held on for a 66-63 victory over the No. 1 Terriers in the Northeast Conference championship game, sending the Colonials to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 and the first time under coach Andy Toole.
“Honestly, I thought it was going in,” St. Francis coach Glenn Braica said. “After all these years, I thought it was going in. It really looked on line, I thought it was going in.”
St. Francis, one of five schools that has never made the NCAA Tournament since the modern reclassification of Division I in 1948, is still without a tournament bid.
Robert Morris was making its sixth appearance in the NEC championship game in the last seven years, but Toole had never been to the NCAAs as a head man.
“A lot of my friends have been calling me Marv Levy because we haven’t been able to win the Big One,” Toole, whose team knocked Kentucky out of the NIT two years ago, joked as it was obvious his players had no idea who the former Buffalo Bills coach was.
After the win, former St. Anthony standout Lucky Jones sat with his 1-year-old son, Ma’Khai, on his lap and the NEC championship trophy in front of him. His parents, Vicky and Lou, had been cheering for him from the rafters with pictures of Lucky on their T-shirts.
Jones had put Robert Morris ahead 66-63 when he hit two foul shots with 13.8 seconds left, but St. Francis guard Tyreek Jewell was fouled by Elijah Minnie shooting a 3-pointer.
With 2.4 seconds left, Jewell had a jewel of a chance to tie the game if he made all three foul shots.
But he missed the first one and then misfired on the second, too.
He missed the third on purpose and Robert Morris grabbed the defensive rebound. But Jones missed two more foul shots on the other end, giving Ulmer one more shot for glory that ended up falling short.
“[When Ulmer’s shot was in the air], I was thinking Lucky should’ve made the free throw, that’s what I was thinking,” Toole said.
Said Jones: “Oh man, I was just praying that it didn’t go in. It was a desperation shot. I really should’ve made two free throws and we wouldn’t even have been in that predicament. But I’m thankful that it didn’t go in.”
St. Francis led 35-29 at the half and their was a positive vibe inside the gym in Brooklyn Heights as the fans were thinking of their first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
But Robert Morris outscored the Terriers, 37-28, in the second half.
Rodney Pryor led Robert Morris (19-14) with 17 points and was named Tournament MVP, Minnie added 14 and 9 rebounds, Jones had 12 points and Marcquise Reed scored 10 points.
For St. Francis, Jewell scored a career-best 19 points, making 4-of-10 from deep, and Jalen Cannon and Glenn Sanabria 10 apiece.
“Obviously, it’s very disappointing, the result tonight,” Braica said. “We’re all down, but I’m very proud of my guys…We got the first postseason bid in 52 years, we’ll be going to the NIT next week.”
“It’s a little disappointing, but we got the NIT next week,” Cannon said. “We just gotta put our foot forward and keep going.”
NEC All-Tournament Team:
MVP – Rodney Pryor (RM)
Lucky Jones (RM)
Earl Brown (SFU)
Jalen Cannon (SFBK)
Brent Jones (SFBK)