Monday, February 25, 2013

Young, Talented Iona Women's Team Is Red Hot

Your humble correspondent sees every conference women's team at least twice during regular-season play, and the first viewing of Iona, at the exact midway point of the MAAC season (a loss, which dropped Iona to a 5-4 league record at that point) didn't leave an overly positive perception of the Gaels.

There was tentative play on both ends and a lack of overall effort getting back on defense ... the type maladies that often affect a young team. And, make no mistake, Iona is still a young team. Its best player is a sophomore. Its next best player is a freshman. There's only one senior in the playing group, and she's the team's eighth-leading scorer.

Good coaches, though, get young teams to develop as seasons progress, and head coach Tony Bozzella's team, of late, is playing like a group of mature veterans.

Since that midseason viewing and a 5-4 conference record, the Gaels have been 6-1 to move into a tie for second place in the MAAC standings with an 11-5 record. The only loss in that stretch has come against still-perfect Marist (16-0 in league play), and the wins have come against some of the other better teams in the conference, including co-second place Fairfield, fourth-place Rider and sixth-place occupants Siena and Canisius.

So, what happened?

"This is the most-resilient group I've had in my 11 seasons here," said Bozzella, who has 302 career coaching victories (120 at Division II Southampton, 34 at Division I LIU and the rest at Iona).

"That and Damika Martinez has started making shots ... and she's making tough shots," added Bozzella, speaking before his team's very impressive 71-47 victory over Siena on Sunday.

And, just as impressive was the class shown by Bozzella in pregame ceremonies Sunday honoring departing seniors. Bozzella not only personally handed a flower arrangements to his own senior class members, but also one to Siena's lone senior player, Lily Grenci.

Bozzella's team also delivered on the court, too, notably with a defensive effort that held Siena to just 23.3 percent shooting (14-of-60) in the game.

And, the Gaels' offense has been even better of late, with a three-game run of 88, 84 and 84 points recently, and an average of 77.8 points per game in its last six victories.

"It has been a product of Damika making a lot of shots and our defense giving us some easy hoops in transition," added Bozzella.

All of that was on display in Sunday's win, and Martinez, the conference's leading scorer, wasn't alone on the offensive end. Against the Saints, four Gaels were in double figures for points, led by Martinez and freshman standout Joy Adams (16 each), sophomore guard Aleesha Powell (15) and senior guard Diana Hubbard (10).

Adams, a sturdy 5-foot-11 freshman power forward, has been a terrific addition to a team that was talented but a little too small a year ago. She averages 13.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game and is almost certain to the the MAAC's Rookie of the Year. She has won the league's weekly top rookie honors 11 times already, matching the most by any MAAC player (Rachele Fitz of Marist also won 11 weekly top rookie honors in the 2006-07 season).

But Martinez, who last season became the first freshman to ever lead the MAAC in scoring, has turned around a slow start in early league games into a hot streak that lifted her into serious consideration for the conference's Player of the Year award.

In Iona's last seven games (its 6-1 streak), the 5-7 sophomore guard has has made 51.4 percent of her shots (55-of-107), while averaging 21.9 points per contest.

Sunday's viewing all but convinced this Hoopscribe that Iona is the conference's second-best team (behind Marist), and that even better things are ahead. Iona's top seven scorers will return next season, it has a strong current freshman class and what appears to be three solid recruits joining next season's team.

The team's recent success (16-11 overall this season) is a continuation of strong performances under Bozzella, who was taking over arguably the most-downtrodden program when he came aboard in 2002-03.

Prior to his arrival, Iona's women's team had one winning record in its first 21 years in the MAAC, that a 14-13 overall record in 1981-82, the conference's first year of existence. Since then there were 20 straight losing seasons (a 152-404 record).

Bozzella endured two more losing seasons before a five-year stretch during which his team averaged 18.8 wins per season, the best five-year run in the past 32 years of its MAAC affiliation.

Then, though, came back-to-back records of 11-20 (2010-11) and 13-18 (last season when his expected top player, Kristina Ford, suffered a knee injury early,  missed five weeks and was limited physically upon her return).

The good times are back, now, for the Iona women's team. And, considering the talent in place and the fact that much of it will be back for the next two seasons, it looks like Iona will once again be one of the MAAC's better women's programs for the foreseeable future.


speedboy said...

ok steve thats a start iona has also been getting solid play from the guard spot with haley deangelo and aleesha powell both in the top 5 in assist, assist / turnover ratio in conference play.powell stat line was impressive 15 pts. 7 assist 6 steals and 6 rebounds on sunday.

Steve Amedio said...

"That's a start ..."
Nice to know you approve of my work.