March 16, 2023 

Sights and sounds from NCAA Tournament’s First Four

Sacred Heart, Southern show why First Four games mean so much to mid-majors

STANFORD, Calif — There’s not much time to rest when you’re in the First Four as a No. 16 seed.

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Especially when the journey for both Southern and Sacred Heart was taking them all the way to California’s not-so-sunny shores of the San Francisco Bay.

But two years ago, Wednesday’s matchup wouldn’t have happened. The NCAA only expanded the women’s tournament up to 68 teams last season, a result of the gender equity reckoning wrought from the 2021 tournament in San Antonio.

To some extent, there’s some unfairness to the First Four. It’s already hard enough to win six games to win the NCAA Tournament.

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But now, the eight teams that are in the First Four have less time to get ready for the tournament, get one more game added to their path to winning it all and typically have to play right in front of the team they’ll face in the next game.

With each challenge comes an opportunity. And, in the NCAA Tournament’s first week, the First Four is the only guaranteed time where the entire women’s basketball world gets to focus on one game.

For Southern and Sacred Heart, playing each other on Wednesday gave them, alone, that spotlight. It gave each program a chance to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in their history.

That outshone any possible negatives that come from the First Four games.

“It’s so special,” Sacred Heart head coach Jessica Mannetti said on Tuesday before the game. “We knew that getting this program back to the national level was going to be really important, and so for us to be able to play here on this national stage and represent our university … It would mean so much to us to be able to continue to make our university proud and really bring basketball back to that national level.”

Southern coach Carlos Funchess added, “I think it’s great just to get the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. I don’t look at it as it being a slight to the program or to the conference. It’s just great to have this opportunity. If you win tomorrow, you get a chance to play again on Friday. That’s just putting your brand out there. That helps recruiting, the university as far as recruiting student-athletes, and keeps your brand out there in the spotlight.”

Tipoff of the First Four round matchup between the Sacred Heart Pioneers and the Southern Lady Jaguars in the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday, March 17, 2023 at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California. (Photo credit: Alex Simon/The Next)

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Mirrored paths, expedited adventures

Their journeys through 2022-23 almost look identical, when you step back for a moment.

Both teams started the season slow in nonconference play, with Southern going 3-8 and Sacred Heart starting 2-9. They then got their seasons turned around in their conferences, Southern going 12-6 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Sacred Heart finishing 12-4 in the Northeast Conference (NEC).

Southern needed a desperate comeback miracle 3-point shot to beat the SWAC’s best team in the regular season, Jackson State, in the semifinals. They then pulled away in the fourth quarter against Arkansas Pine-Bluff to win the title.

Sacred Heart, meanwhile, had their own crazy game in the NEC championship, coming from behind on Fairleigh Dickinson’s home floor and storming away late to get a win and kick off two crazy journeys to their matchup.

Southern left the SWAC tournament in Birmingham, Alabama on Saturday afternoon and got back to their Baton Rouge, Louisiana campus late Saturday night. They had the day to enjoy before the Selection Sunday show, where they found out it was time to go quick again. The Jaguars were flying out West by Monday evening, barely 48 hours after clinching their tournament spot.

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Sacred Heart had even less time, winning the NEC around 2 p.m. Eastern on Sunday afternoon at Fairleigh Dickinson’s campus in Hackensack, New Jersey. They pulled back up at the Fairfield, Connecticut campus just in time to watch the show on ESPN that told the Pioneers they were playing on Wednesday.

Less than 24 hours after they officially made the Big Dance, the Pioneers were on their bus, heading out West for California, where Mannetti pointed out most of her players have never been.

“As a senior I’m so, so thankful for this team,” said Sacred Heart’s Sajada Bonner. “It was so exciting to celebrate every moment with them and our coaching staff. To be in California is amazing within a few hours, so I am just so thankful.”

Also making matters a little crazy was a hellacious windstorm that hit the Bay Area, with gusts reaching as high as 97 miles per hour causing trees to fall down all around campus. Southern’s bus nearly had a massive branch of a eucalyptus tree fall onto it while they were in Maples practicing, and Sacred Heart’s bus had to stop twice to avoid falling trees on the way to Stanford’s campus.

A large branch of a eucalyptus tree fell over just next to Southern’s bus on Tuesday, March 16 just outside of Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California. on Wednesday, March 17, 2023 at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California. (Photo credit: Alex Simon/The Next)

But that didn’t dampen anyone’s joy of being in this moment.

“It’s a dream come true. I think today in film we were talking to the players about the little girl that got to watch March Madness for the first time,” Mannetti said, holding back tears as she spoke. ”These moments are so special because you work your whole life for this. Some coaches never get to experience this. Players who work their whole life, talented players, deserving players, don’t get to experience this, and we are living that dream right now.

“So it’s a true full circle moment and we are so grateful to be here.”

Southern’s Amani McWain also called it a “dream come true” and added, “a Cinderella story, something you dream of as a kid when you play sports,” which Genovea Johnson concurred.

“[In] hard times, you pray about this, you dream of this,” Johnson said. “To be here is just another level of a dream come true.”

The extra year of eligibility that the NCAA afforded every athlete who played through 2020-21 is allowing for some athletes to stay for an extra year. Both Johnson and Raven White are listed as seniors but will be staying for one more year.

But for some, this was the COVID year. Mcwain was grateful that the COVID year was around so she could come back for this season and end her career in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m glad that I got a COVID year to come back and win. I would’ve never got in this position if I didn’t have it,” McWain said on Tuesday ahead of the game. “It hasn’t really sunk in to me — like, wow,I’m going to end my career on a high note. I think everybody always wants to leave whatever level you’re on on a good, positive note. I feel like I came out on top.

“I’m in the clouds right now. I don’t know. I feel really good.”

High-flying action

Thankfully, Wednesday provided a picture perfect Bay Area day for the out-of-towners (foggy and gray in the morning, sunshine all afternoon, mid 60s) as they got ready for what was a showdown.

Mannetti said that she felt the two teams mirrored each other in style, asking her Pioneers in the run-up to the game: “How would you play us? How should we play a team like us?”

After five minutes, it wasn’t clear if the Pioneers had an answer. The Jaguars worked things inside, feeding White early on and quickly jumping out to a 14-4 lead in the first five minutes.

Funchess felt his team started strong. But he added, “You know, down late in the first quarter I thought we kind of got out of character a little bit and didn’t move the ball like we needed to, and that gave them an opportunity to score some transition threes.”

3-pointers from freshman Amelia Wood on back-to-back possessions – two of only four made 3-pointers in the entire game —was a calming balm for Sacred Heart.

“Amelia has made great shots over the course of this season,” said Sacred Heart’s star, freshman Ny’Ceara Pryor. “I think that we trust her to shoot the shots. When she made them it just fired us up to keep playing defense and we got back in the game.”

Amelia’s older sister Kelsey, a junior, added, “we talked about this going into halftime. We were all in there as a team and gave her high fives and were like, ‘You’re the reason why we’re in this game.’ I think those two threes really gave us the spark we needed and that sparked our defense as well. It was a really, really well-done job by her.”

From there, the Pioneers opened up a massive second quarter, with six forced Jaguar turnovers and some strong shooting leading to a 21-4 advantage. Once down 10, Sacred Heart went in at half up 13.

“In the game of basketball, most of the time one mistake leads to another one, and we turned the basketball over,” Funchess said. “We took quick shots, and that led to I think three transition threes. In the half court we did a really good job guarding them, but when they get transit turnovers, live ball turnovers, there is really no defense for that.

“It was like a snowball going downhill. We just got a little rattled, and I hadn’t seen that from our team in a while.”

Sacred Heart interrupts ESPN analyst Brooke Weisbrod’s interview with freshman guard Ny’Ceara Pryor (#1) after the Pioneers won in the First Four round of the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday, March 17, 2023 at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California. (Photo credit: Alex Simon/The Next)

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One thing Southern clearly planned for was Pryor, who won the NEC’s Freshman, Defensive and overall Player of the Year honors even at 5-3. The Jaguars had defenders – and particularly Tyeniesha Metcalf – guard Pryor tightly all night and clearly affected Pryor’s shooting ability, holding her to 3-of-13 from the field on the night.

But the freshman found other ways to attack for the Pioneers, first looking to distribute to others – she had seven of her 10 assists in the first half – before driving for contact, earning several trips to the foul line (where she went 5-for-9).

The final stat line: 11 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and a massive impact on this game.

“She sees the floor so well. Even though she’s short, she’s really able to quickly see the open man and does a really good job,” Mannetti said. “I think when they disrupt Ny, game plans to disrupt Ny forced other kids to step up. So the question always is who is going to step up in these moments when the game plan is to take two and three of your players and really disrupt our point guard?”

Pryor gave credit to Metcalf, calling her a “great defender,” and to Southern, saying they had a great game plan against her. But Pryor wasn’t named a captain four games into her freshman season for nothing.

“Ny is a selfless player, I think all of you guys can see that on the court,” said Olivia Tucker, who benefitted from several Pryor passes in scoring a game-high 13 points. “She picks us up. She is always looking for her teammates, and she did realize that they were face guarding her, so she had to do other things, and that’s kind of how her stat line came out. I mean, she had 10 assists. That’s just amazing in itself.

“She is a great leader on and off the court, so even though they were denying her the ball, I think everybody else stepped up and did a really good job in that end.”

After Sacred Heart’s lead ballooned up to as much as 18 Southern made a late charge in the fourth, getting the game back to single digits briefly. Funchess saved his timeouts to try to help then, even with a big deficit to keep cutting down.

“I knew it was going to be tough,” Funchess said. “I just wanted the young ladies to keep competing, making the right plays down the stretch, just to give yourself an opportunity to win.”

In the NCAA Tournament, one team’s season ends with every game played. And for players like Mcwain, so do careers. But to wrap up a collegiate career on this stage?

“It’s all I can ask for,” Mcwain said. “I couldn’t imagine my season ending a different way. It could have ended a long time ago but it didn’t. I’m very grateful for my teammates, Coach Funchess, and, like I said, the COVID year, because I wouldn’t have been able to play this year. It’s been a great year for me. A lot of up and downs, but it was a really great year.”

And for Sacred Heart, the First Four game means they not only won the first NCAA Tournament game in the school’s women’s basketball history. It’s the first NCAA Tournament win in any team sport in the school’s history. Mannetti called it “amazing” and listed who this win is for.

“It’s for every parent that brought them to AAU and spent money and time to support them. Every coach that ever coached them. Every family member that ever hugged them when they celebrated wins or consoled them for losses. Every fan that ever cheered for us.

“It’s for our administrators who have supported us. These moments are so much bigger because you get to celebrate them with everybody that has come with you. It makes it that much more special to say, ‘Hey, we did this for and with Sacred Heart.’”

Sacred Heart head coach Jessica Mannetti (center, arms raised) celebrates her team’s win in the First Four round of the NCAA Tournament with athletic director Judy Ann Riccio (left) and deputy athletic director Tammy Petrucelli (right) on Wednesday, March 17, 2023 at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California. (Photo credit: Alex Simon/The Next)

They’ll get two more days out West, playing against Stanford, one of women’s basketball’s blue bloods, on Friday night. It’ll be a daunting task, which they all know.

But, because of the First Four game, they will forever get to say they won an NCAA Tournament game. And that makes the whirlwind worthwhile.

“I always tell my team, like we just made history,” Pryor said. “Like, we are not done writing our story. I just think that’s a great feeling for us. And I feel good.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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