Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Women's Quarterfinal Match: Loyola vs. Niagara

Here's another in the series previewing women's teams for the upcoming MAAC tournament.

LOYOLA (No. 4 SEED) vs. NIAGARA (No. 5)
Friday, 3:30 p.m.

WHAT LOYOLA HAS: Arguably the best perimeter group in the league, and the Greyhounds are the only team with two players to earn first-team all-league honors. Those are 5-10 guards senior Miriam McKenzie (5th in the league in scoring, 2nd in rebounding) and junior Katie Sheahin (3rd in scoring, 7th in assists and 1st in steals). Add to that group freshman Kara Marshall, who averaged 14.1 points over the last 16 games and is an all-Rookie team member, and the perimeter group is far above average.

WHAT NIAGARA HAS: For one, momentum having won its last two games (over Siena and Manhattan) and going 7-5 in its last 12 games, quite a turnaround for a team that finished 0-18 in league play last season. The Purple Eagles also have all the necessities covered. A post player? 6-2 Lauren Gatto averages 9.9 points and 5.6 rebounds. Point guard? That's Kayla Stroman (10.7 points and 3.9 assists, fourth best in the MAAC). Shooting? Among others, freshman sniper Meghan McGuinness (51 treys), whose 45.5 shooting percentage from beyond the bonus stripe is the best in the conference.

WHAT LOYOLA DOESN'T HAVE: Much of an inside game. The program's "bigs," Alyssa Sutherland (6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds) and Nneka Offodile (4.9, 4.7) are both decent defenders but don't instill fear in opponents with their production. As much as Sheahin does for the team, her shooting percentage (35.4 percent) is sub-par for a player of her abilities. And, there's not much depth.

WHAT NIAGARA DOESN'T HAVE: Experience. Its top two players, Gatto and Stroman, are sophomores. In fact, seven of the eight players getting the most playing time of late are either freshmen or sophomores. Only senior "glue" player Ali Morris is an upperclassman in the current playing group. The Purple Eagles also lack much inside beyond Gatto, an consistently are outrebounded.

HOW LOYOLA CAN WIN: There's a reason why the Greyhounds were picked to finish second in the preseason, and it's because of the talent of McKenzie and Sheahin. If the perimeter group, which includes Marshall, performs well Loyola can beat any conference team on a given night. If Sutherland and Offodile contribute even a little more than usual, it's not hard to envision Loyola advancing far in the tournament.

HOW NIAGARA CAN WIN: By playing beyond its years, as it did this past weekend with a 21-point victory over Siena and a 12-point decision over Manhattan. But ... both games were on Niagara's home court. Still, Niagara was 4-5 in MAAC play away from home. The way Niagara has played of late has stamped it as a clear dark horse choice, the team no one wants to play, in the tournament. If it can keep its poise, it could cause some damage in the tournament. If not, it will most certainly be a significant contender in the future.

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