EMMITSBURG -- For the past five years, the Mount St. Mary's women's basketball team has ruled the Northeast Conference, with five regular-season titles and last year's tournament championship.
Until last night, the Mountaineers had no NCAA tournament bid to show for their dominance.
But last night the Mount won the NEC tournament championship and its automatic NCAA tournament bid by beating St. Francis, Pa., 78-67, before a raucous crowd of 825 at Knott Arena.
And so, today, when the pairings for the tournament are announced, for the first time since the school went to Division I, the name Mount St. Mary's will be heard.
"It's going to be a shock," said junior forward Susie Rowlyk. "We always look for it [the name], but this year, it really will be there."
If not for Rowlyk, the Mountaineers (25-3), who raced through league play with an 18-0 mark, might still be looking for their NCAA bid.
Rowlyk, the tournament's most valuable player, turned in a sterling performance with 26 points and 15 rebounds, allowing the heavily favored Mountaineers to get on their feet after they stumbled badly at the start.
Rowlyk, the NEC Player of the Year, scored 11 of the Mount's last 16, hitting 14 of 19 free throws.
"She [Rowlyk] had a super second half," said St. Francis coach Jenny Przekwas. "We did not block her out, and we did not meet the challenge she presented to us. She showed why she was picked the player of the year."
The Mountaineers were pressed immediately by the second-seeded Red Flash (15-14), which opened with a 19-2 run, prompting Mount coach Bill Sheahan to use two quick timeouts.
"I was kind of wishing I was in Jamaica right then," said Sheahan. "We were digging a deeper and deeper hole for ourselves. "I was thinking: 'Let's relax. We have a good basketball team.' And we did relax."
The Mountaineers settled down, took a brief first-half lead, then took charge late in the second half.
Rowlyk, who led the first-half comeback, hit two free throws and a baseline drive in the last five minutes of the game to give the Mountaineers an insurmountable 66-61 lead with 4:46 left.
"We weathered that storm, and that happens in so many games," said Sheahan. "That's a credit to the poise of the kids."
The Mountaineers, who play in a conference that did not earn an NCAA tournament bid until this season, when the field was expanded to 64 teams, received garment bags from the NEC as conference champions, an appropriate gift since they almost certainly be on the road for their first-round game Wednesday night.
"It [the bid] finally shows the recognition that the women's game is receiving," said Rowlyk. "We're playing not only for ourselves, but we're going to represent our conference in front of the nation and hopefully show what we're all about."