FAIRFIELD, Conn. (AP) Coach Sal Buscaglia has a sign in his office that says simply: ''Believe''.
Even when his Robert Morris team was in the midst of a losing streak in January, the Colonials never lost hope. Now they're headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
''I told them believe in our system and we'll take you to the promise land,'' Buscaglia said after Robert Morris beat Sacred Heart 56-51 on Sunday to win the NEC Conference Tournament championship. ''We started winning games toward the end.''
With Sunday's win, Buscaglia will have one last chance to get a first NCAA Tournament victory. The veteran coach announced before the season that he would be retiring when the year was over. Buscaglia has spent 38 years on the bench, including the last 13 at Robert Morris.
''He always gave us the credit, we had a lot of downs this season and he never stopped one second believing in us,'' said Ashley Ravelli, who scored 14 points to lead the Colonials. ''Lot of the credit goes to our coaches for this championship.''
The third-seeded Colonials (20-12) led 52-45 with 4:25 left before the Pioneers rallied with the next six points. Trailing 52-50 with 13.8 seconds left, Adaysha Williams hit one of two free throws to get the Pioneers within a point.
Ravelli was fouled a second later and hit both free throws to make it 54-51.
Sacred Heart (20-12) had one final chance but Williams' 3-pointer from the corner was short. Janee Brown sank two free throws to seal the win.
Robert Morris never trailed in the game and led by four at the half. The Colonials extended the advantage to 40-31 midway through the third quarter. Top-seed Sacred Heart rallied behind Shelby Hickey, who had all nine of her points in the second half.
Sacred Heart started out 2-10 with the final loss during that stretch coming at Robert Morris. The Pioneers had won 18 of 19 since, including a victory over the Colonials on Feb. 15.
''We did a great job turning this season around,'' Sacred Heart's Hannah Kimmel said. ''Really turned it around in conference play. Impressive what we did this year, we just happened to fall short. Our season's not over so we're going to keep playing.''
Kimmel scored all 13 of her points in the first half to lead the Pioneers.
Robert Morris: Buscaglia has won 706 games at four different schools and has 437 Division I victories. He is winless in four NCAA Tournament appearances. ... The Colonials are 6-3 in NEC title games, also winning in 1988, 1991, 2007, 2008 and 2014. ... This was the Colonials first win at Sacred Heart since 2008.
Sacred Heart: The Pioneers advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2006 for the first time and have been back two other times (2009, 2012). ... Kimmel was NEC player of the year, the fourth Pioneer to win that award. ... Former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who is the school's athletic director, sat courtside cheering on the Pioneers.
Robert Morris: NCAA Tournament.
Sacred Heart: WNIT.