EASTON, Mass. – The No. 16 University of the Sciences women's basketball team knocked off No. 6 Bentley 61-54 in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday evening at Merkert Gymnasium to advance to the program's first-ever East Region Final and Sweet 16.
Entering the season with a lone NCAA Tournament win from last year, USciences (30-3) has now won twice this year, and the Devils will play either St. Thomas Aquinas or No. 11 Stonehill – the host – in the East Region Final on Monday night at 7 p.m. with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
"This is really special, especially with the group of players that we have," said head coach Jackie Hartzell. "I know our seniors didn't want their careers to end tonight. We are excited to play another game, but to beat Bentley two years in a row… they are such a great team. It is amazing."
"It is hard to put this into words," added senior guard Sarah Abbonizio. "I am just so happy, and I think everyone on the team is really happy because every year we have accomplished something new. I think that tradition is going to continue even after this year. To give one word, it is just awesome."
Trailing for the first time in the second half after Bentley (28-4) completed a 13-2 run with a 3-pointer to make the score 49-48 with 5:04 remaining, it was freshman Irisa Ye responding with a layup late in the shot clock 32 seconds later to quickly re-take the lead for good.
After a Bentley turnover, Alex Thomas cushioned the advantage with a clutch 3-pointer to make it a two-possession game with 3:45 to go.
University of the Sciences got a defensive stop, and this time it was Abbonizio coming through with a layup late in the shot clock to put the Devils on top 55-49 with just 2:51 left.
Bentley came back with a layup 46 seconds later after an offensive rebound, and the Falcons made 1-of-2 from the line with 1:06 to play to make it a one-possession game, 55-52.
It was Thomas coming through again though, with a basket in the final minute that ultimately proved to put the game out of reach for good.
The USciences defense forced three Bentley misses, and the Devils made 4-of-4 from the line to close out the historic win.
For the second straight day it was the University of the Sciences defense stifling an opponent. After Bentley made 7-of-11 shots (63.3 percent) in the first quarter, including 3-of-5 3-pointers, the Falcons went just 12-for-46 (26.1) from the floor and 4-of-19 (21.1) from 3-point range for the remainder of the evening.
Thomas made all three of her fourth quarter shots, and both of her free throw attempts, to score nine of her 16 points in the final 10 minutes. She finished 6-for-8 for the game and made both of her 3-point attempts to move into solo possession of fifth in program history with 65 triples this season.
Her two free throws with just four seconds remaining moved the junior into sixth in program history with 1,307 career points.
Abbonizio scored 14 of her game-high 20 points in the second quarter to help USciences take a six-point lead, 40-34, into the locker room.
She too moved up the program's all-time scoring list into 10th, ending the night with 1,272 career points.
She also became just the fifth Devil in program history to surpass 500 points in a season.
Colleen Walsh scored all nine of her points on three 3-pointers in the first quarter to help USciences erase Bentley's hot start. She is now sixth in the program's single-season history with 63 trifectas this year.
Jordan Vitelli also had nine points.
Notably, Laura Trisch grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds for her eighth double-digit rebounding performance of the season to move into ninth in program history with 694 for her career.
Bentley came out hot, making its first three shots for a quick 8-0 lead just 1:40 into the action, but Walsh drained back-to-back 3-pointers – the first of four straight for USciences – and the Devils tied the game, 14-14, on Ye's layup with 3:10 showing on the first quarter clock.
Bentley answered with a 3-pointer but back-to-back trifectas by Vitelli and Walsh began eight unanswered, helping University of the Sciences to a 22-19 advantage after 10 minutes of play.
The Devils advantage reached a first-half high six for the first time, 25-19, when Abbonizio scored the first three points of the second quarter in 52 seconds.
An 8-2 Bentley run resulted in the first of three second quarter ties, 27-27, with 6:39 to play in the first half, and the Falcons took its only second quarter lead, 33-32, on two free throws 3:13 later.
University of the Sciences closed the half on an 8-1 surge though, which included an Abbonizio three-point play and an Abbonizio triple eight seconds before the halftime buzzer.
After Bentley scored 33 points in the first 16:34, University of the Sciences held the Falcons to just three points over the next 9:55 of game-time. After holding the Falcons to just one point in the final 3:26 of the first half, the Devils held them to just two points in the first 6:29 of the second half.
USciences took advantage by taking a game-high 46-36 advantage on Abbonizio's layup at the 5:03 mark of the third quarter.
The Devils would not score for the next 9:04 of game-time though, allowing Bentley to get back into the game with its 13-2 run.