Friday, May 14, 2010

Women's Report: Niagara's Run Continues

Here's the latest in the "10 Teams in 10 Days" series looking back and ahead at MAAC women's programs.

Up now ...

NIAGARA (9-9 in MAAC play in 2009-10, 13-18 overall)

RECAP: Through nearly half its season Niagara looked like the worst team in the league, which wasn't a surprise. The Purple Eagles needed to win their final regular-season game of 2008-09 to avoid becoming the fourth team in conference history to go through a league schedule without a win. It finished 1-17 in MAAC play and 3-28 overall. And, it followed that with a 3-12 overall record to start the 2009-10 season. And, then, Niagara wasn't the conference's worst team any more. Just ask Marist, the regular-season champion, which suffered a 69-59 defeat at Niagara on Jan. 31. That was the second of a mid-season five-game winning streak. Some lineup adjustments and a renewed dedication to doing the so-called little things, i.e. boxing out, getting on the floor for loose balls, etc., that add up to victories also added up to a remarkable mid-season turnaround from what looked to be another disasterous season. Instead, it turned out to be a very satisfying season, one that earned third-year coach Kendra Faustin the conference's Coach of the Year award and created considerable optimism for what's ahead. The 9-9 conference record was the program's first .500 league season since 2004-05. It won a decisive first-round MAAC tournament game with a 66-54 victory over Manhattan before it lost to tournament-winner Marist, 69-47, in the semifinal round.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The mid-season rededication turned the season around. After the 3-12 start it would have been understandable if the team merely opted to play out the string. That it didn't had to be as satisfying as the 10-6 won-loss record down the stretch, including victories over league champion Marist and third-place Fairfield. The turnaround came with a lineup adjustment that moved lightly used resevere 6-1 senior center Jaclyn Konieczka into the starting five. Her rebounding and defense provided aspects of play that were lacking for a team that had been getting overwhelmed in the post until then. Although Konieczka only averaged 5.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, she had a career high 21 points in the "signature" victory over Marist. Freshman point guard Kayla Stroman also provided play beyond her years while running the team. Another guard, sophomore Ali Morris, was named the conference's 6th Player of the Year winner and junior forward Liz Flooks, one of the MAAC's top outside shooters, was a second-team all-conference pick. As a team Niagara committed 73 fewer turnovers than its opponents.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Rebounding was a problem all season as Niagara was outrebounded by a per-game average of 7.5. Through its first 12 games it operated at a deficit of 11.4 rebounds per game, after that only a minus 4.1. Tough to win games giving up all those extra possessions, but the Purple Eagles did other things well, including putting a value on its own possessions and it had 73 fewer turnovers than opponents. Its second-leading scorer, Jennifer McNamee, suffered a mid-season injury and didn't play after Jan. 31. Four of its top eight players were freshmen or sophomores, although that overall inexperience became less of a factor as the season progressed. Mostly, it was a tale of two seasons. The first 15 games were miserable ad the final 16 were far more than program followers expected.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Potentially more post problems as the team's top two rebounders, 6-1 Rachele Folino (5.7 per game) and Konieczka are both gone. it leaves Flooks, mostly a perimeter performer; and the 5-5 Stoman as the two leading returning rebounders. Otherwise, there is much to be optimistic about. Flooks will be among the conference's better scorers this coming season, Stroman has a year's experience running the team. Morris will likely play a bigger role after a nice sophomore season. Another sophomore, 5-10 forward Meghan Watermann might have been the league's top defensive stopper this past season. And, 5-11 freshman forward Jessica Flamm showed signs of being a nice contributor. But, there's still the rebounding problem, and that might have to be solved by incoming freshmen. The best is athletic 5-11 forward Shy Britton. And, there are two-6-1 players joining the program, Jazmine Frost and Kaitlin Gattuso, whose dad is the associate head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh.

PREDICTION FOR 2010-11: There won't be any need for a mid-season turnaround. If the team can continue to embrace the need to do the dirty-work duties that produced this past season's strong second-half results, then it should be winning games right away. There are five very good perimter players returning. The only question concerns finding some inside players, even if those only provide rebounds and inside defense. If that comes, Niagara should finish in the upper half of the league standings.

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