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Giger Counters: Saint Francis pulls off stunning and historic upset with first victory ever over Pitt

Photo by Saint Francis University: Men's basketball coach Rob Krimmel

Saint Francis beat Pitt.

I never thought I would write those words.

So I’ll write them again.

Saint Francis beat Pitt.

It wasn’t a fluke.

It wasn’t an accident.

It wasn’t a crazy finish.

It was a dominant performance from start to finish by the Red Flash, who beat Pitt, 80-70, for their biggest regular-season win in more than 40 years.

“It’s a big win, and at some point it will sink in,” SFU coach/alum/lifer Rob Krimmel said after the historic victory Wednesday night at the Petersen Events Center.

The vast majority of the sports world, even people who love college basketball, have no idea how incredible it is what Krimmel has pulled off at Saint Francis and what the Red Flash pulled off in the monumental upset Wednesday night.

I have written these words before, and I’ll write them again:

Rob Krimmel. Miracle worker.

Krimmel took over a program that was struggling mightily and had one of the toughest jobs in the country, at such a tiny school on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere.

But Krimmel has done an absolutely incredible job at his alma mater, and Wednesday’s win marked the highest of the highs for him.

“Aside from a coach, he’s just a great person,” SFU guard Ramiir Dixon-Conover said.

Saint Francis had been 0-29 against Pitt. It came into this game as a 15 1/2-point underdog.

The Red Flash had only beaten one power conference team ever, a victory at Rutgers on Dec. 20, 2014.

This not only is a much bigger victory than that Rutgers game, it’s also Saint Francis’ biggest regular-season win in 43 years. The Flash closed the 1977 season with a victory over Georgetown, coached by the late John Thompson, and they also had beaten West Virginia earlier that year.

Saint Francis also beat Penn State in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons, but PSU wasn’t a major player in college basketball then.

“I grew up in State College with a family that worked at Penn State, so the Pitt-Penn State rivalry was a part of my childhood, and having a father that was in athletics certainly (was part of it),” Krimmel said.

Krimmel came to Saint Francis to play basketball, and he played against Pitt back in the 1990s, always losing. He lost to the Panthers some more times as a Red Flash assistant coach.

Wednesday, Krimmel not only finally got to enjoy — for himself and his beloved program — what it feels like to beat Pitt, he also got to show the rest of the country just how good of a college coach he is.

Saint Francis is so, so lucky to have Rob Krimmel. No, he hasn’t gotten to the NCAA Tournament yet with the Flash, and last year’s loss to Robert Morris in the NEC title game was crushing because SFU had two star players and a terrific team that looked to be on the verge of the program’s second NCAA berth.

But fast forward eight months, and Krimmel and the Flash managed to pick up a tremendous victory the likes of which the program has not had in a long, long, long time.

It’s almost a shame that it happened in the first game of the season, because it’s gonna be impossible for Krimmel and his team to really even enjoy it all that much. The Flash have to turn around and play UMBC at home on Saturday.

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Krimmel, grounded and humble as always, was more worried about taking care of the players on the team after the game than winning a historic contest on the night before Thanksgiving.

“We have to worry about feeding 30 kids Thanksgiving dinner, so god bless my parents and my wife,” he said. “I’ve got to go home and set up tables, and so that’s a little different experience now and how we’re going to eat Thanksgiving meal. So, I think I’m so distracted by that and then, you know, having to get ready for another opponent.

“Listen, we’re gonna enjoy this on the bus ride home.”

Here’s what kind of day Saint Francis had Wednesday, by the way.

The basketball players took finals earlier in the day. Some of those finals ran until 1:30 p.m.

Then they all hopped on a bus, drove over to Pittsburgh and made history.

In a money game, no less, with the school receiving a nice-sized check to come over and play the Panthers.

Dixon-Conover led the Flash with 21 points and said, “I wouldn’t say we’re stunned” by the victory.

Krimmel said he didn’t know what he had in this team coming into the game. The Flash lost superstars Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon from last year’s 22-win team, so there was no telling what would happen Wednesday.

What happened is SFU came out shooting great, while Pitt played a terrible first half with poor shooting and 12 turnovers. The Flash led at the half, 46-33, and upped the cushion to 20 early in the second half.

Pitt tried to come back with stronger defense, and Saint Francis had some trouble on offense as the game wound down, including three consecutive shot clock violations.

But the Flash made enough shots, Pitt still couldn’t make many, and there really was no drama late as Saint Francis held on to win comfortably.

It obviously helped the visitors that there were no fans at the Pete because of COVID safety protocols. The Panthers didn’t really have much home-court advantage and got no extra juice from any crowd as they tried to rally in the second half.

The Flash were motivated enough on their own to come out and pull off the victory.

Despite the big point spread — way too big, in fact — it should not have been a huge surprise to those who follow SFU closely that the team would go and play well enough to at least hang around.

The Flash have gone on the road and played some marquee opponents in recent years, and they’ve hung tough with a number of them, including: leading at the half at Indiana in the 2019 NIT; leading late in the half at UCLA earlier that same season; and trailing by only 4 late in a game at Marquette in 2016.

The players in the SFU program are used to playing the big boys and don’t get intimidated.

There also was a game at Richmond last year, in which Saint Francis was up big late but had a meltdown and lost. Krimmel said the memory of that game actually helped his team this time against Pitt.

I’m gonna write the words again, because even though I expected the Flash to give a good showing, I still just can’t believe this happened.

Saint Francis beat Pitt.

Wow.

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Written By

Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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