State Colleges

Nova books return trip to elite eight

From the opening tip, it was clear this game between the top two seeds of the region was going to come down to the final seconds.

For the second year in a row, the Nova Southeastern women’s basketball team will be playing in the NCAA Division II elite eight.

Top seed Nova defeated Tampa for the second time this season with an emotional come-from-behind 56-53 victory in the South Region Championship Monday night at Nova’s Don Taft University Center.

The Sharks topped the Spartans 64-55 in the Sunshine State Conference Championship last Sunday after losing both regular season matchups to Tampa.

Nova (28-4) will face Concordia St. Paul, winners of the Central Region, in Erie, Penn., on March 25 at 2:30 p.m. The Sharks hope to accomplish what they were unable to last season: advance to the final four.

“An outstanding win for us,” Nova coach LeAnn Freeland said. “We are really fired up to represent the Sunshine State Conference in the Elite Eight for the second straight year.”

Defense was the story of the first half. The two teams combined for 53 points on 39 percent shooting with Tampa (24-7) ahead 29-24 after the first twenty minutes. Nova alone scored 51 points in the first half against Albany State on Saturday night.

Three turnovers by the Spartans in the final 3:46 of the half helped Nova cut the lead to five heading into halftime. Senior guard Jessica Russi led the Sharks with six points and five assists at the end of the half.

Russi single-handedly kept the Sharks alive during the second half. In a span of 37 seconds, Russi stole the ball and finished at the other end for a layup, forced an offensive foul against the Spartans and assisted on junior guard Danielle Robinson’s layup to give the Sharks a 36-35 lead with 12:00 left.

“This was not going to be my last game,” Russi said. “That was just my mindset the whole game.”

After 10 minutes of back-and-forth play, a defensive breakdown by Nova gave sophomore center Taylor McVey an open path to the rim and a chance to give the Spartans a three-point lead with 42 seconds left.

But as McVey was starting to go up, senior guard Richelle Carach punched the ball out of McVey’s hands and stole it. Fittingly, on the other end Russi found Carach under the basket for a layup to give Nova a 54-53 lead with 35 seconds remaining.

Carach wasn’t finished. With six seconds remaining, the senior drew a charge on a drive by senior guard Keke Jones. Two free throws by senior guard Amanda Burakoski sealed the win, and a trip to Pennsylvania, for Nova.

Tampa struggled to get into a rhythm due to foul trouble. The Spartans finished the game with 23 personal fouls compared to 19 made field goals.

Russi finished with a game-high 19 points on 6 for 10 shooting and eight assists.