KISSIMMEE, Fla. – It was an upset 15 years in the making.
The No. 7 seed Saint Leo women's basketball team flipped the Sunshine State Conference Tournament upside down on Thursday night as the Lions upset regular season titleholder and No. 2 seed Lynn University 68-50 in the quarterfinal round at the Silver Spurs Arena.
It was a win that was almost never in doubt almost from the opening tip as Saint Leo (13-14) rushed out to a 16 point lead just over halfway through the opening stanza. The Lions were hitting nearly all their shots in opening up the lead while Lynn (18-9) seemed a step off. It carried over to the second as Saint Leo outscored the Fighting Knights 37-27 despite Lynn's growing desperation to find even a little bit of momentum as time wound down.
"I thought we had balanced scoring and anytime we have that we're pretty hard to stop," an excited Nikki Jessee said of her team. "It really wasn't our offense though, our defense was really good from the get-go and that was our goal this last week. Our post defense was awesome, we knew we had to stop their inside game and then stop Kira Harvey, the (Conference's) Player of the Year. I thought Kinnara Lewis did a phenomenal job in the first half on her and then Teresa (Manigrasso) was on her and did a great job."
Harvey, the top player in the conference in the All-SSC Teams released earlier today, was held in check by the Saint Leo defense that Coach Jessee speaks of, going just 5-of-18 from the floor, scoring 16 points which is below her 19.2 season average.
While the game was not overly thrilling with its result mostly secured throughout the second half, the ripple effects of the win had the Sunshine State Conference officials referencing the tournament record books in a hurry after the final buzzer.
The win gives Coach Nikki Jessee her first career tournament victory as a head coach in the Sunshine State Conference. Prior to Saint Leo, she last served as a head coach at, ironically enough, Lynn University in 2007-09 where she was 0-2 in postseason play.
The biggest news from the win is spawned from the fact that the Lions advance to the semifinal round of the SSC Tournament for the first time since the 1997-98 season when they played as the No. 4 seed and defeated No. 5 Tampa 75-72 in a game played at the Lakeland Center. It is the first time in 15 years that Saint Leo will not be going home after the tournament's first full day.
In scoring 68 total points, the Lions saw four players in double figures with SSC Newcomer of the Year Teresa Manigrasso dropping in a team-high 15 on 6-of-9 shooting. Keishara Green and Kinnara Lewis both added 12 points and Chelsea Williams scored 11 in the win. Defensively, Chelsea Connelly tied a career-best with 16 rebounds as she led a Saint Leo defensive effort that kept the Fighting Knights to just 17-of-62 (27.4%) shooting from the floor while outrebounding their opponents from Boca Raton 51-to-38.
Another big factor came from the free throw line where Saint Leo made 24 of its 33 chances (72.7%) while Lynn only made it to the line 21 times, converting just 10 free throws (47.6%).
The victory by the Lions is also the first upset of a No. 7 seed over a No. 2 seed in the history of the Sunshine State Conference women's basketball tournament. This is only the Lions' fourth victory in tournament play.
Saint Leo will now watch the final game of the quarterfinal round of the tournament with extra interest as it will now face the winner of the No. 3 Eckerd/No. 6 Tampa game. Game time for the semifinal round matchup is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
For the Lions' opponents, and any news related to the women's basketball team, be sure to visit SaintLeoLions.com.