The extremes of March — Sacred Heart head coach Jess Mannetti talks dancing — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Mar. 15, 2023

HACKENSACK, NJ — The media room at the Rothman Center in Hackensack was scarcely big enough to contain the emotions packed into it after Fairleigh Dickinson fell to Sacred Heart, 72-60, in the Northeast Conference championship game.

This was supposed to be FDU’s crowning moment at home, and they led with eight minutes to go. But Sacred Heart had the best player on the court — Ny’Ceara Pryor — and she simply took over the game late. Now, Sierra D’Angelo, a senior who’d been part of head coach Ang Szumilo’s build, from 13 to 16 to 19 to 24 wins, the goal of the NCAA Tournament just a few minutes away, struggled to control her emotions and talk about the dream she’d missed.

Coach Szumilo blamed herself. The team returns its best player, Chloe Wilson, and the future of the program is bright. But this is the pain of March. There’s no going back for D’Angelo. There’s the knowledge that they came so close to touching this reality and then missed it. As a reporter, there is nothing to do. As a human, it is hard to witness up close without wanting to comfort those experiencing it.

Fairleigh Dickinson's postgame press conference following the NEC title game on Mar. 12, 2023. (Howard Megdal photo)
Fairleigh Dickinson’s postgame press conference following the NEC title game on Mar. 12, 2023. (Howard Megdal photo)

And yet.

Even as the press conference for FDU took place, the rolling cheers of Sacred Heart players, coaches, families and friends were plainly audible just beyond the open door of the media room. A few minutes later, Jess Mannetti and her two best players, Pryor and Olivia Tucker, entered, Mannetti wearing a just-cut net around her neck to accent the black dress she had on.

“I asked my mom if she thought this goes with my dress,” Mannetti said as she sat down at the podium.

It does. Victory nets go with everything.

Mannetti’s been at Sacred Heart for 10 years. She remembers every bit of progress, every setback. Traveling to Robert Morris, had the ball down two with 20 seconds to go, 2016 NEC title game — only to fall short. And then: seven more years. Finally, a championship.

That was so long ago, Breanna Stewart was still in college, which happens to be the earliest basketball memory of Pryor’s life, the same Ny’Ceara Pryor that a national television audience gets to meet tonight as a program-changing member of the Sacred Heart team, a freshman named team captain four games into her college career.

It is the flip side of the grief from a moment missed. Whatever happens next — a run of championships for Mannetti and Pryor, or this highlight as a lone moment of glory — no one can take what happened next away from Sacred Heart, after the group collectively gathered itself from the pile-on at midcourt, spoke to us in the media, got a a bus home, and a day later, flew across the country to California.

At 9 PM ET tonight, Jess Mannetti, Ny’Ceara Pryor and Sacred Heart will play in front of a national television audience.

That will be true tonight, tomorrow, and for the rest of their lives. They’ll tell their children, and their children’s children. Whatever else happens in their lives, that’s the memory they’ve forged, one of many teams and countless individuals doing so — a highlight, a particularly sweet sentence in an obituary someday, taken from a life filled with striving and, in this case, succeeding.

Enjoy the basketball. But don’t lose sight of what people are really playing for here in March. It’s the very height, and depth, of human experience.

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This week in women’s basketball

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And Brawl Don’t Lie gets your bracket ready.

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Five at The IX: Jess Mannetti, Sacred Heart

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.