FLUSHING, NY – The Firebirds used a 15-6 run in the final five minutes to cut an 11-point deficit to two, but two Bianca Kowgios free-throws sealed a St. Thomas Aquinas victory as the No. 3 Spartans eliminated the No. 2 University of the District of Columbia women's basketball team with a 63-61 East Coast Conference Championship Tournament semifinal victory.
The Firebirds (21-6), who were playing in their first-ever ECC Tournament in their inaugural season as members of the conference, outscored STAC 38-32 in the second half, but it was not enough to dig themselves out of a 31-23 halftime hole. UDC, which came into the week ranked No. 5 in the East Region, will now await the NCAA East Region Tournament Selection Committee's decision on Sunday, March 4th at 10:00 p.m.
STAC, which was ranked No. 10 in the region heading into the week, improved to 18-10 on the season and advances to the ECC finals to take on No. 1 Dowling. The Lions defeated No. 4 C.W. Post, 70-53 in the first semifinal game of the afternoon.
ECC All-Rookie selection Denikka Brent led UDC early on with nine first-half points and finished with a team-high 13. Senior forward Stacy Griffith played inspired basketball with 13 points and eight rebounds, and ECC First Team selection Lauren Brittingham pitched in with 10 points. Fourth-year senior Jasmine Rich, who buried a big-time three-pointer in the corner to bring the Firebirds within two with 17 seconds left in regulation, finished the game with eight points and three assists.
Sara Oliveira shot lights-out in the first half, making 7-of-8 from the field (3-of-4 from long range), as she scored 17 of her game-high 21 points to lead STAC early on. Briana Sloper would take care of the rest, scoring all 13 of her points in the second half to go with six rebounds. Kowgios, the ECC defensive player of the year, was 0-for-9 from the field but 12-of-14 from the foul line to finish with 12 points and a game-high seven assists.
The Spartans marched out to an 8-0 lead in the first 1:45 of play and extended their lead to 15-2 a little over five minutes in. STAC still led by 13 (21-8) at the nine-minute mark when Brent led UDC on a 9-0 charge with seven points during the run. Brent's jumper at the 6:30 mark brought the Firebirds within four, but STAC would outscore UDC 10-4 in the final 6:08 of the first half and take a 31-23 lead at intermission.
In the second half, Sloper came out firing right out of the gate, as she scored 10 of the team's first 12 points and helped the Spartans extend their lead to 16 (43-27) at the 14:29 mark. Trailing 45-29, Brittingham scored seven points to lead UDC on a 12-1 run which cut the Firebirds' deficit to five, 46-41. But STAC answered with two Kowgios free-throws and a conventional three-point play by Shpresa Liharevic to up its lead back to 10, 51-41.
The Firebirds were down by 11 after a pair of Sloper free-throws at the 4:58 mark when they went on a frantic 15-5 run highlighted by three Griffith layups and a three-pointer by Rich. The three-pointer in the corner by Rich made it a one-possession game (61-59) with 17 seconds left on the clock. A long inbounds pass down the far sideline to Kowgios forced Brittingham to chase her down and pick up her fifth personal foul to stop the clock. Kowgios calmly sank both her shots at the line to make it a two-possession game.
Rich quickly worked the ball up the floor and found an open Snezana Blagojevic for a mid-range jumper with just a few seconds left on the clock to make it a two-point game again, but the Firebirds were not able to foul quickly enough to stop the clock after the ensuing inbounds pass as time expired, and STAC hung on for the 63-61 victory.
UDC held a slight, 39-37 rebounding advantage, outscored STAC 24-8 in the paint and turned 17 offensive rebounds into 21 second-chance points. The Firebirds forced 25 STAC turnovers which they turned into 21 points, but they also committed 19 turnovers which resulted in 15 Spartan points. STAC also shot a little better (36-percent to 32-percent) from the field and three-point range (7-of-17 to 5-of-18). The Spartans, who came in ranked No. 1 in the league in FT shooting percentage (72.6), really did their damage at the charity stripe, making 22-of-27 (82-percent) compared to 12-of-16 (75-percent) by UDC.