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Leading by nine points late in the first quarter, the No. 2 seed Sacred Heart women’s basketball team was seemingly marching toward a victory in the semifinals of the Northeast Conference Tournament Thursday night.

But the Pioneers watched the game steadily slip away, as No 4 and defending champion Saint Francis seized control and advanced to the title game with a 68-60 victory at the Pitt Center. Sacred Heart ended its season at 19-12, coming up short in its bid for a sixth trip to the conference championship.

Saint Francis (16-16) chipped away at its early deficit by outscoring Sacred Heart 22-14 over the final 12 minutes of the first half. The Pioneers led by one point at halftime and increased its lead to five in the third quarter, but Saint Francis finished the quarter with a 16-8 run to take the lead.

Sacred Heart senior Candice Leatherwood scored a career-high 21 points, shooting 5 of 10 on 3-pointers. Senior Erin Storck had 13 points, eight rebounds six assists and two steals.

Another senior, Katherine Haines, had 14 points and nine rebounds.

The three seniors combined for 69 of Sacred Heart’s 60 points in what may have been their final college game.

Saint Francis was led by guard Jess Kovatch, who had 23 points and seven rebounds. Karson Swogger had 16 points and seven rebounds, while Haley Thomas had eight points and nine rebounds.

Next up for Saint Francis is No. 1 seed Robert Morris (21-10), which advanced with a 69-65 win over No. 6 Mount St. Mary’s. The title game is Sunday at 2 p.m. at Robert Morris.

There will be a postseason spot at stake for Sacred Heart. If Robert Morris wins Sunday and secures an NCAA Tournament bid, Sacred Heart will earn the NEC’s automatic qualifying spot into the WNIT as the conference’s No. 2 seed in the regular season.

A Saint Francis victory would leave Robert Morris as the conference’s WNIT representative.