Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is This The Year Marist Women Falter?

Is this finally the year someone other than Marist wins the MAAC women's post-season tournament?

Maybe. At least it seems that this might the most-vulnerable the Red Foxes have been entering the conference tournament since the start of their four-year run of success in this event beginning with the 2005-o6 season.

It's been more than 1,800 days since anyone other than the Red Foxes represented the MAAC in the NCAA tournament.

Will this be the year that changes?

If you want to seek signs of the program's vulnerability, they're there.

Like a 69-59 loss at Niagara on Jan. 31, coming against an opponent that was 1-17 in conference play the previous year.

Or, like a 61-60 setback to Fairfield on Feb. 9, coming against an opponent that lost four starters off last season's team.

Or, like this past weekend when the Red Foxes needed overtime to hold off Iona, 82-80, on Friday in a game that clinched the program's seventh consecutive conference crown and, then, lost a 65-62 decision against Manhattan, an opponent that currently has an overall record just a single game over the .500 mark.

"People talk about that, but you have to realize that they finished 15-3 in league play this season," said Fairfield coach Joe Frager. "Every other coach in our league would kill to have a 15-3 league record."

Still, it's a drop off from records of, starting with 2008-09 and going backwards, 16-2, 18-0, 17-1 and 16-2 in league play.

And, Marist has suffered heavy graduation losses over its stretch of success of recent years: Fifi Camera after the 2005-06 season, Meg Dahlman and Alisa Kresge after the 2006-07 season, and Julianne Viani after last season.

Through that, though, Marist just continued to reload. But its ammunition doesn't seem quite as potent this season.

This might be the most-vulnerable Marist team of the last five seasons. That, though, doesn't mean the Red Foxes aren't anything other than a typically heavy favorite to win the women's event that begins with play-in games on Thursday and concludes with Sunday's championship game.

After all, it did win the regular season crown with a two-game margin, and its 23-7 overall mark dwarfs other league members. Iona and Fairfield, both at 17-12, have the next best overall records.

Still, Marist has an 8-3 record in its last 11 MAAC games, a very un-Marist like performance.

Non-Marist teams with the best chance of cutting down the nets on Sunday?

Probably second-place Iona (13-5 in league play) and Fairfield (11-7).

Iona seems to have the required pieces ... height, strong guard play and depth ... to play with Marist.

But, surprisingly, it's Fairfield that has had the most success in recent years against the Red Foxes as the only team to beat Marist in each of the past two seasons.

Fairfield's secret? Nothing really, except to turn in your best game.

"Marist is so good that in order to have a shot to compete with them you can't turn it over and you have to get a good look almost every time down court," said Frager. "Then, you have to shoot a good percentage and your outside shots have to fall. Your interior defense needs to be strong, too.

"And, even if you do those things ... they can still beat you. They are really well coached, they're talented and they're very poised. Even though three teams have beaten them in league play this year, they're still the favorite.

"The thing with them is that they're so hard to guard. They have so many 3-point shooters that you have to get out on them. Then, though, they've got Rachele Fitz inside."

Fitz is expected to be honored as the league's Player of the Year for the third consecutive season.

But, Fairfield has an answer. If Fitz is the league's best player, then the Stags' 6-foot-2 center Stephanie Geehan, who ranks fourth nationally in rebounding and blocked shots, might be next.

And, Fairfield enters the tournament as the conference's hottest team, riding a seven-game winning streak.

"We knew coming off a good year and, then, losing four of our top six players that it was going to be tough for us this season and that we were going to be young," added Frager. "Then, we got banged up early. But I'm very pleased with the way the girls handled things.

"At one point we were 10-12 overall and 4-7 in league play, but we never lost faith. Still, if you told me before the season that we'd finish 11-7 in the MAAC and finish with a seven-game winning streak ... considering all the players we lost from the previous year, I might not have believed it."

Not many likely believe Marist, after earning its seventh straight regular-season chamionship, will lose the conference tournament this weekend.

But, as Fairfield's unlikely season and its recent successes over the Red Foxes might indicate .... maybe it's not all that unlikely that someone other than Marist wins this season's MAAC tournament title.

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