LORETTO – St. Francis freshman forward Sam Miller never had been in that position before, so she didn’t know she was supposed to be nervous.
“All my teammates had absolute confidence in me. They were telling me, ‘We believe in you,’ and were being so supportive,” Miller said, recalling the moments leading up to her toeing the line for free throws with her team trailing Wagner by a point and 5.6 seconds left. “I was just telling myself, ‘You’re in the gym. You shoot these all day. Just have confidence in yourself and hope they go in.’ ”
They did, and the Red Flash escaped DeGol Arena with a 51-50 Northeast Conference win over upset-minded Wagner on Monday night.
The victory was St. Francis’ fourth in five games, all in conference. The Flash improved to 6-10 overall.
“I think our team has a lot of depth, and each game, we’re finding different people to step up,” said junior wing Jenna Mastellone, who came off the bench to score eight points in the second half, spearheading a St. Francis rally after it was down by as many as seven. Mastellone finished with 10 points.
Bishop McCort product Haley Thomas recorded 11 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, while Karson Swogger, the focus of Wagner’s physical defense all game, wound up with 11 points, as well.
It was Swogger that St. Francis coach Keila Whittington was hoping to go to after calling back-to-back timeouts with 13 seconds left and her team trailing by a point on Alex Cowan’s foul shot 7 seconds earlier.
Swogger couldn’t find an opening, however the whistle blew when Miller went to the floor and Wagner big Katrice Jackson was called for putting her there.
Miller had only taken 14 free throws in her college career, making 10, but she calmly swished both. They were her only points.
Wagner had a chance to win it at the other end, but Thomas bothered Khaleah Edwards’ reverse-layup attempt, forcing a miss.
Both teams grabbed the rebound. The officials went to the monitor, and, after about a minute, determined that time expired before the tie-up, giving St. Francis the victory.
“Normally, I tell the team, ‘All we need is a one-point win,’ ” Whittington said. “That’s what it came down to. We’ll take it.
“We knew this was going to be a physical team. We knew they were going to bring the defensive pressure. It was up to us to have some composure.”
Asked how it felt to be the hero, Miller handled the question like a veteran, looking at the bigger scope.
“The points came at an important time, but it was all the little baskets and all the defensive stops and other things that put me and the team in that position at the end,” Miller said. “Without that defensive stop, the two free throws mean nothing.”
Mastellone had five rebounds to go along with her 10 points off the bench. Lili Benzel came off the bench to contribute eight points and four rebounds.
Eight Red Flash players scored and all nine that played had at least two boards.
This is a more self-assured squad now than the one St. Francis students left on holiday break, one that has an ability to win games in a variety of fashions.
“People are getting more confidence with each win,” Mastellone said. “Every game, we’re getting better.”
St. Francis trailed for most of the first three quarters until Mastellone’s 3-pointer with 3:24 remaining in the third frame put the Flash up by a point. A minute later, Mastellone struck from nearly the same spot when the defense collapsed on a driving Swogger and the junior from Bellwood-Antis kicked it out.
St. Francis shot 55.6% and outrebounded Wagner 20-9 in the first half but still trailed 31-26 at the intermission. The primary reason was the Red Flash’s 13 turnovers, which allowed the Seahawks to take 12 more shots from the floor.
Thomas came out strong, racking up seven points and five rebounds in the first quarter, while Benzel came off the bench to knock down a pair of 3-pointers. However, Wagner went 4-for-8 from 3-point land over the first 10 minutes to secure an 18-15 edge.
It was Wagner’s eighth-straight defeat, but the Seahawks only lost by four at NEC frontrunner Robert Morris on Saturday.
“It didn’t happen the way we planned it, but I’ll take it. It’s a win,” Whittington said with a big smile.