Sunday, January 31, 2010

Niagara Women: Statement Win vs. Marist

One of the most-gratifying parts of coaching has to be seeing one's team continue to work hard and improve even without tangible results.

The Niagara women's basketball team finished 3-28 with a 1-17 conference record last season and things weren't looking a lot better in a 3-12 start (0-4 in league play) this season.

It looked like Niagara was becoming everyone's favorite opponent, the team you knew you get could a victory against.

No one is thinking that about the Purple Eagles any more.

Third-year head coach Kendra Faustin's team has made one of the most-remarkable mid-season turnarounds by a MAAC program in recent memory.

Niagara has won four of its last five games, the first two of those victories on the road.

But the clincher, the real statement outcome about its turnaround, came Sunday afternoon at the Purple Eagles' Taps Gallagher Center with a definnitive 69-59 victory over Marist, the team that has come to epitomize dominance in the conference.

Niagara's victory ended a 13-game Marist winning streak, which had been the third-longest nationally. It was also just Marist's sixth loss in regular-season conference play since the start of the 2004-05 season.

Maybe it showed that Marist's hold on the upper position in the conference isn't as solid as it has been in recent years.

Just as much, though, it showed that Niagara isn't the place to go for a sure victory any longer.

"This is just huge for us," said Faustin. "It was a game televised by Time Warner, and afterwards I was asked if this victory made a statement to our league.

"My response was it was more of a statement to ourselves. It gives us the confidence that we are good and that we can be successful if we keep doing all the things we always talk about."

The things Faustin emphasizes are the things most teams strive to do: take care of the ball, box out, deflect opponents' passes and get steals, play hard, etc., etc.

But, Faustin says, it's also about her players understanding what they're capable of doing.

"Usually before a game we have a board in the lockerroom that lists the opposing players we're facing," she said. "We'll go over them one-by-one emphasizing their tendencies. It's a final review of our scouting report.

"But, before we played Siena (a 65-63 Niagara victory in overtime on Friday night) we put our own players' names up on the board and went through them one by one letting our team members talk about what each of them is capable of doing."

And, then, her players have gone out and fulfilled those capabilities this weekend.

Faustin has helped develop some talent in her time at Niagara. Junior forward Liz Flooks is arguably the MAAC's best long-range shooter; freshman point guard Kayla Stroman is one of the top first-year players in the conference who performs like a veteran; sophomore forward Meghan Waterman is a lock-down defender; senior forward Rachele Folino provides some post scoring; and, senior guard Jennifer McNamee, a career 1,000-point scorer, has provided an offensive spark coming off the bench.

But, no player better typifies Niagara's turnaround moreso than 6-1 senior forward Jaclyn Konieczka, who had averaged just 2.8 points through her team's first 18 games this season and had been little more than a role player in previous seasons.

"She hadn't played a lot for us in past years, but I made her a captain this year because she always says and does the right things," said Faustin, about Konieczka. "She's not the most-athletic player on the floor, but she's got the most desire of any kid I've ever coached. She'll do whatever you ask of her. A lot of times, all I've asked was for her to sit on the bench and root hard for her teammates."

Konieczka, though, moved into the starting lineup five games ago to give woefully-undersized Niagara, which had been getting outrebounded by a margin of 10 per game, a little more size inside.

It's probably not a coincidence that the team's recent 4-1 run has coincided with Konieczka's presence in the starting lineup.

And, all Konieczka did Sunday was respond with a career-high 21 points against the best team in the conference.

She wasn't alone. Stroman had 15 points and eight assists against just two turnovers; Flooks had 12 points and McNamee chipped in with eight.

Defensively Niagara forced Marist to commit an uncharacteristic 22 turnovers. Entering play this week, the Red Foxes had averaged 13.2 turnovers per contest, the third-lowest total nationally.

"We have gone through a ton of adversity," added Faustin. "But we laid a foundation to commit to doing all the little things. We even give out "Purple Pride" points to players who do positive things that don't show up in the box score. Things like setting a good screen that sets up a basket, or getting a defensive deflection.

"Against Marist, we did all of those things, all the little things."

Faustin said that earlier Sunday her husband (R.J.) offered some pre-game encouragement.

"He told me that we could do it, that Marist's players put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as us," added Faustin. "It's just that they're so talented. For us to have a chance to beat them, we would really have to put it all together."

Niagara put it all together Sunday afternoon against Marist, but it wasn't any fluke outcome, not with it being the Purple Eagles fourth victory in the last five games.

If anything, it's the product of Niagara finally figuring out that doing all the little things can add up to some big victories.

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