Monday, March 5, 2012

Marist Women: More of the Same to Win MAAC Title

By now a MAAC tournament championship from the Marist women's basketball is as expected as a sunrise, an all-but sure thing.

After all, with Monday's 61-35 championship game victory over Fairfield the Red Foxes now have claimed the last seven tournament crowns and eight of the last nine that result in an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

But this year's wasn't quite so certain. Marist lost two all-league level starters from a year ago, one the conference's Player of the Year, to graduation. Shortly after, an emerging 6-foot-4 player transferred out. And, then, in this year's sixth game it lost its starting point guard.

It set Marist up to play the rest of the season without a true center and without a true point guard, arguably the two most-important positions for any college basketball team.

So, just maybe, this would be the year a Marist women's championship wouldn't join death and taxes as life's certainties.

And, then, nothing changed except the level of domination Marist exhibited in Monday's championship game.

Instead of everyone closing the gap with the conference's dominant team for almost all of the past decade, the gap got larger on Monday. It got this large: Marist had a 54-23 lead over the conference's second-best team with 7:05 remaining and was still outscoring Fairfield by a more-than two-to-one ratio with 2:30 remaining.

The final 26-point margin goes down as the second most-lopsided result in the 31 years of MAAC women's championship games. Only a Saint Peter's 66-38 victory over Niagara in 1997 came by a larger margin, and Monday's probably would have challenged that one had the Red Foxes not had their reserves on the floor for the final four or five minutes.

"This was the classic team on which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts," said head coach and program architect Brian Giorgis. "We faced adversity, losing a lot of people and then losing our point guard (Kristine Best)  six games into the season. And, then, we looked abominable in the first game we played without her.

"But we got great senior leadership and great performances by underclassmen who really believe in what we do.

"This is why you coach. You coach for this type of team, for people who believe in each other. This is just incredible."

By the time it reached the MAAC tournament, Giorgis knew something special was coming out of his Poughkeepsie, N.Y., women's basketball laboratory.

It found a point guard in sophomore Casey Dulin, the team's least-used scholarship player last season. It moved forward Brandy Gang, whose best work comes on the perimeter, into a non-traditional center's role. It had the preseason Player of the Year choice in senior guard Corielle Yard, but there was far more uncertainty throughout the rest of the roster.

By mid-season, though, the "special" label was a good fit for Marist once again.

But, this special?

"Last night I couldn't sleep," said Giorgis. "All night I kept remembering how well Katelyn Linney and Alexis Vazquez (Fairifled guards) had been shooting, and how tough Taryn Johnson (a Fairfield forward) was inside.

"I finally said to myself that I had to stop that. My kids have been amazing all year, and I realized that they would do it again. They couldn't have come this far and not do it again. And what they turned in was as dominant a performance as I've ever seen in a championship game and they did it at both ends of the court."

Dominant on the defensive end? In taking its first 13 shots Fairfield had more of them blocked by Marist (four) than it made (three).

The winners had a 12-point advantage early in the first half, saw Fairfield pull to within seven and, then, had the lead back up to 12 at the intermission.

Fairfield made its first shot of the second half to cut its deficit to 10 and, then, the winners' dominance was on full display with a 24-3 run during which Marist's defense forced Fairfield into 0-for-17 shooting from the field.

"They made it extremely hard for us to get looks at the basket," said Fairfield coach Joe Frager. "But when we did get good looks we didn't knock shots down. Marist just played as close to a perfect game as they played all year."

And, they did it without the traditional expectations, considering all the personnel losses since the end of last season.

But, nothing seems to change for the now long-running success show at Marist except for the cast.

In Monday's championship game, sophomore Casey Dulin had 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists after a freshman season in which she was the team's least-used scholarship player.

Two days earlier, in a 68-54 overtime semifinal-round victory over Niagara it was Kelsey Beynnon with team-high totals of 23 points and 16 rebounds who, last season, played only slightly more than 10 minutes per game.

In Friday's quarterfinal-round victory over Saint Peter's Leanne Ockenden had 15 points and and five rebounds. A year ago she averaged just 11.6 minutes of court time per game.

For Marist, it seems, the names change but the results rarely differ.

Only this time, the championship-game victory was more dominant than ever.

And, just maybe, a little bit more unexpected than usual.

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