“What a Day! What a Game!” Sacred Heart beats Southern in NCAA First Four, Makes School History –

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March 15, 2023 (Stanford, CA) – Sacred Heart postgame after beating Southern U. in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. Photos: © Baranduin Briggs, all rights reserved.

Stanford, CA – “What a day. What a game. We are so excited. I am so proud of our team’s effort.”

Sacred Heart head coach Jessica Mannetti opened her postgame press conference with a big smile and enthusiasm after making school history Wednesday night. An outstanding second quarter propelled Sacred Heart (19-13,12-4 NEC) to a hard-fought 57-47 win over Southern University (19-13,12-4 NEC) in a First Four matchup at Stanford University. Now, the No. 16-seeded Pioneers will face the home team, the No. 1-seed Cardinal, Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

History Made for Sacred Heart

The victory marked a first-ever March Madness triumph for a Sacred Heart women’s or men’s basketball team. It was also the first NCAA tournament win for a Northeast Conference women’s program.

“It was a true battle tonight,” Mannetti said. “I am so proud of how our team rallied to make history tonight.”

At the outset, it seemed as if Sacred Heart didn’t have the upper hand in the contest. Southern took control from the tip in the first quarter, winning the jump ball. Jaguars senior forward Raven White scored first with a layup after a Sacred Heart turnover. Following a 14-4 run, Southern had a ten-point lead at 5:07 in the period.

Sacred Heart clawed back, beginning with back-to-back treys from freshman guard Amelia Wood and a jumper from freshman guard Sierra Johnson. The Jaguars led the Pioneers 16-12 heading into the second quarter.

Sacred Heart shut down Southern in the second stanza with defensive intensity and a balanced offensive output. Turnovers and poor ball handling put the ice on the Jaguars’ efforts. While no players from either team had double digits in points at the time, Sacred Heart had production from several team members, with four players scoring at least six points.

The Jaguars only put up four points in the entire second period, while Sacred Heart had 21.

“I didn’t think we made good decisions a lot of times, especially when they made that run in the second quarter,” Southern head coach Carlos Funchess said. “We didn’t share the basketball. We played out of character. We were missing open players for easy shots. We didn’t do a good job passing the ball to the post.”

At the half, the Pioneers had a 33-20 advantage.

“We were 2-9 after non-conference games, and most of those included slow starts,” Mannetti said of her team’s second-period surge. “We had to learn valuable lessons from not starting well. [After the first quarter tonight] I said, ‘We’ve been here before [with bad starts]. Settle down. We are a little tight.’”

A Battle to Close Out the Game

The second half saw Southern perform much better offensively, even outscoring Sacred Heart 15-11 in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the Jaguars couldn’t overcome the double-digit halftime deficit until the last 1:14 of the game when they got within eight points of the Pioneers. The late-game scramble was not enough, and production came too late.

Senior guard Olivia Tucker led the Pioneers with 13 points. Junior forward Kelsey Wood added 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Sacred Heart’s freshman point guard Ny’Ceara Pryor flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, eight rebounds, and ten assists. She is the NEC Player, Rookie, and Defensive Player of the Year and is the first player in conference history to earn three major awards in the same season.

For Southern, senior guard Genovea Johnson was the only player in double figures with 11 points plus seven rebounds.

Next Up: No. 1 Stanford

Sacred Heart begins its preparation to face the storied Cardinal, but, in the meantime, they can celebrate advancing in the tournament.

“We just made history,” Pryor said, “and we are not done with this story.”

The Sacred Heart-Stanford game is at 4:30 p.m. PT on Friday (TV: ESPN2). A matchup between Gonzaga and Ole Miss follows with a tip-off set for 7 p.m. PT.

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