Monday, March 7, 2011

Women: Yet another Marist Championship

The Marist women's basketball lost its top player, forward Rachele Fitz, to graduation after last season and that meant the Red Foxes would enter the 2010-11 season without arguably the best women's player ever to perform at a MAAC school.

Still, league coaches made Marist the unanimous pick, in their preseason poll, to win yet another regular-season championship.

"They voted us to win, but I honestly believe they all thought that this would be the year," said Marist coach Brian Giorgis. "With Rachele gone they thought it was the year that we could be beaten."

But not this year, and that became evident early, probably as soon as the Red Foxes went to the Duel in the Desert tournament and beat three teams, Lousville, Nebraska and Houston, from power conferences to capture that event's championship.

"For the last three years we'd go to Rachele one out of every two possessions," said Giorgis. "And, why not? We had that canon, and we fired it. We're not stupid.

"But as the season went on I think other coaches in our league started to think we might be even better this season."

Better because they shared the ball better and ran a more-effective and equal-opportunity offense with not only a starting five, but several bench players, capable of finishing open shots created by an effective motion offense.

Better enough to be unbeaten in MAAC regular season play, just the second team in league history to finish with an 18-0 conference mark (the 2007-08 team also did it).

Better enough to win 17 of those 18 league games by double figures.

Better enough, too, to rip through the MAAC tournament in similarly impressive fashion by winning margins of 28, 15 and 18.

The culmination for now, at least until Marist begins playing again in the NCAA tournament, came with its 63-45 victory over Loyola in Monday afternoon's tournament championship contest.

So, the sun continued to rise in the east, taxes remain high and Marist continued not only winning but dominating MAAC opponents.

This marked the eighth straight year Marist was in the conference's championship game, the seventh time it has won the tournament title under ninth-year coach Brian Giorgis and the sixth time in succession it has done so.

Since the start of the 2004-05 season Marist is an incredible 135-12 in all MAAC games, including a 20-1 record in league tournament contests.

"They've done it through recruiting to get talent and, then, to develop that talent," said Loyola coach Joe Logan.

But, it's not only that.

There's credit to be given to Giorgis for finding talent no one else wanted.

Like Erica Allenspach, for one.

Allenspach was a minor role player on her hometown AAU team in Ohio during her high school years.

"We had great players on my AAU team and I didn't play that much," Allenspach said. "But coach Giorgis saw something in me."

Something that, at Marist, would enable the 5-foot-8 senior guard to not only be this year's Player of the Year for the conference's regular-season, but the tournament's MVP after she averaged 23.7 points on 24-of-33 shooting (.723 percent) from the field in the three tournament contests.

"I remember, a long time ago, I was at DisneyWorld watching Erica in an AAU event," said Giorgis. "She came off the bench when her team was ahead by four points and after five minutes when she came out her team was ahead by 22. She had something like four points, two steals, three assists, four rebounds and no turnovers.

"You could just see something there, and that's what she has done her whole career at Marist."

"I'm glad coach Giorgis was smart enough to see something in me," said Allenspach.

And, now, with Allenspach's graduation this May, Marist will go into next season having lost another of its all-time performers.

So, maybe 2011-12 is the year the rest of the league catches up to Marist ... but, don't count on it.

"Usually success is cyclical at this level," added Loyola's Logan, whose team finished 15-3 in the regular season with two of the losses against Marist by 16- and 10-point margins.

"It's to the point now that we all know we have to elevate ourselves in order to beat Marist. When I'm out recruting, I'm looking at players we'll need to beat Marist. I'm sure it's like that for everyone in the league.

"When we're doing our off-season workouts you're telling your kids that you have to keep working hard every day, because Marist's players are working hard every day. Now, I'm not sure if that's actually the case but that's what we're always telling our kids."

For now, though, there's more for Marist to do this season. The Red Foxes entered the tournament ranked No. 18 nationally in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll, and 21st nationally in the Associated Press poll.

The best seed for the NCAA tournament the program has gotten in the past has been a No. 7 in a 16-team bracket. Expect something similar this season.

"We can't control that," said Giorgis. "We just want to get there and do some damage."

And, then, Giorgis can start thinking about the future, one without Allenspach.

"We lose one of the greatest players ever to play in our program ... again," said Giorgis. "We lose another starter (point guard Elise Caron) and Maria Laterza (an effective 6-foot-3 reserve post player).

"But, I think we have the personnel to do this again. If they work hard and believe in themselves ... we can be back here again next season."

And the rest of the league will still be trying to figure out how to catch Marist.

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