Sacred Heart women beat Monmouth for NEC titleSacred Heart coach Ed Swanson hugs Callan Taylor after their team's 58-48 victory over Monmouth in the NEC championship final women's basketball game in Fairfield, Conn., Sunday, March 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)
FAIRFIELD, Conn. (AP) Callan Taylor's career has come full circle.
After helping lead Sacred Heart to an NCAA bid her freshman year, she hit a big 3-pointer to get the Pioneers back to the tournament for her senior season.
Ericka Norman scored 18 points and Sacred Heart beat Monmouth 58-48 on Sunday to win the Northeast Conference tournament and clinch its second NCAA bid in the past four seasons.
''I can't believe it,'' Taylor said. ''It's the best way to end your career. I can't ask for a better way to leave Sacred Heart. I'm so proud of this team.''
Top-seeded Sacred Heart (25-7) let a 15-point second-half lead slip away before reasserting itself over the final 10 minutes. Taylor's 3-pointer with 10:05 left broke a 37-all tie and sparked a 13-4 run that put the game away.
''Callan stepped up and hit a big 3,'' coach Ed Swanson said. ''That loosened us up a little bit. You saw a little hop to our step. It was a game of momentum.''
The Pioneers' defense helped the team earn its third NCAA tournament bid. Sacred Heart held Monmouth to 30 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers.
''Our staple for years has been our defensive intensity,'' Swanson said. ''That was really the end of the game. It was our defense. We didn't shoot the ball well, we weren't in a rhythm offensively. We fell back on our defense and dug in and turned them over.''
The Hawks pulled within four with 55 seconds left, but the Pioneers hit six of their eight free-throw attempts in the final minute to seal the win.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, freshman Gabrielle Washington threw the ball up in the air to celebrate. Unfortunately she was a few seconds early.
''I was so excited, I had no idea how many seconds were left,'' Washington said laughing. ''I wanted to throw up the ball.''
It was the second straight season the Hawks (19-13) lost in the championship game. Monmouth is 0-6 in NEC title games since winning its lone championship 25 years ago.
''I don't think there's a worse feeling in basketball than watching someone celebrate the goal you've had the entire season,'' said Alysha Womack, who led Monmouth with 13 points. ''We felt the same thing last year. It's one of the toughest things you go through.''
Norman, who had six steals, was selected tournament MVP. Washington added 13 points and Morgan Merriman had 11 for the Pioneers.
Monmouth trailed 35-20 early in the second half before going on a 17-2 run to tie it on Betsy Gadziala's putback with 11:16 left.
Before Taylor's 3-pointer, the Pioneers had missed 22 of 24 shots spanning the half.
Trailing 6-5, the Pioneers went on a 23-4 run over the next 10 minutes. They hit seven of eight shots during the spurt, including Washington's jumper with 8:33 left that made it 28-10. Sacred Heart had a chance to put the game out of reach, but missed its last 14 shots of the half.
The Hawks closed the first half on a 10-2 run to make it 30-20 at the break.
''I was very proud of them,'' first-year Monmouth coach Jenny Palmateer said. ''We lost because we had way too many turnovers. We didn't handle their press the way we needed to. I was proud of them to come back from 18 down in the first half to cut it to 10. ... We gave ourselves a shot.''
Monmouth won the inaugural NEC title 25 years ago, but the conference didn't gain its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament until 1994. The Hawks last played in the NCAAs in 1983 when they won the Cosmopolitan Conference. They beat Dartmouth in the opening round that year before falling to Cheyney State.