Saturday, February 25, 2012

Niagara Women Make Strong Late-Season Strides

The last time your Hoopscribe saw the Niagara women's basketball team in mid-January, Siena earned a with-ease 62-49 victory and the Purple Eagles looked like a work in progress, one that was in need of a whole lot of progress.

Exactly six weeks later the Niagara women not only have made significant progress but, now, look like the team no one should want to face in the upcoming MAAC post-season tournament that begins with play-in round games Thursday.

The Purple Eagles certainly reversed things against the Saints on Friday night with an 87-66 victory that wasn't even as close as the score indicated. Niagara had a 43-11 lead late in the first half and that lead grew to a 36-point spread, 63-27, early in the second half.

Niagara has now won six of its last 11 games and, now, who wants to play the Purple Eagles in the MAAC tournament?

Probably not first-place Marist, which needed double overtime to survive with a 79-77 victory this past Sunday. And, probably not second-place Fairfield, which only was able to defeat Niagara by six, 56-50, in their most-recent meeting. And, certainly not third-place Manhattan, which dropped a 61-55 decision to the Purple Eagles on Feb. 10.

So, how did Niagara, which went through all of the 2010-11 season without a conference victory (0-18 in the MAAC, 1-29 overall) to its current status of an 8-9 MAAC mark (tied for fifth place)?

"Players have listened to what we've described as their roles, and they're fulfilling those roles," said Niagara coach Kendra Faustin, prior to Friday's victory over Siena. "We've very specifically told our players what their roles are, and they've listened. Our post players are scoring from the post, our drivers are driving, our shooters are taking the shots they're supposed to take."

Kendra didn't say it, but it's also a matter of talent.

A year ago Niagara didn't have point guard Kayla Stroman, who only played a few games before suffering a season-ending injury. It didn't have 6-foot-2 center Lauren Gatto, who had to sit out after transferring into the program. And, it didn't have current freshman Meghan McGuinnes, who was playing in high school a year ago.

Gatto currently averages 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, Stroman averages 10.7 points and 3.7 assists per game. And McGuinness has averaged 15.4 points in her last seven games and has suddenly become the conference's best long-range shooter (her 44.8 percent accuracy from 3-point range is the best in the conference).

And, a crew of Niagara's other players -- sophomores Chanel Johnson (4.7 ppg.), Shy Britton (5.4 ppg.) -- have stepped up considerably since their freshman seasons.

Two other freshmen, forward  Val McQuade and guard Kelly VanLeeuven, have also played well off the bench. And, then, there's the steadying influence of senior Ali Morris (6.0 points, 3.9 rebounds), the proverbial "glue" player.

It makes for a deep, versatile playing group that is playing its best at the right time of the year and probably can't play too much better than it did against Siena on Friday.

It makes for a very dangerous Niagara team next week at the MAAC tournament.

And, then, there's a bright future ahead for the program. Of the eight players currently getting the most minutes, seven are either sophomores or freshmen. Of the current playing group, only Morris won't return next season.

Niagara suddenly looks like a team to be reckowned with in future years. But, maybe, that bright future has come right now.

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