Monday, March 11, 2013

Marist Women March On For Another Tourney Title

New year, same result.

Same record playing on the ol' jukebox.

Pigs have not yet learned to fly. Hell has not frozen over.

By now there is no surprise when the Marist women's basketball team wins yet another MAAC tournament championship, this year with a year with a 72-48 victory over Iona in Monday's title game, to earn the conference's automatic post-season berth in the NCAA tournament.

Marist is now 26-6 overall and turned in its third unbeaten regular season (18-0) in the last six years. It was the eighth straight tournament championship for the Red Foxes and ninth in the last 10 years.

The surprise would be if someone other than Marist had won.

But, death did not take a holiday. Taxes still need to be paid.

Marist always wins the MAAC tournament, at least under the direction of head coach Brian Giorgis.

Same old story, but it never gets old to Giorgis who, shortly after the game, when he was handed a microphone to say a few words, he choked up for close to a minute when it came time to give thanks to his players, particularly his seniors.

Marist did it in typical fashion, more with its defense than its offense.

The Red Foxes held Iona to just 32.1 percent shooting, its standout defender junior guard Leanne Ockenden held her assignment, the league's leading scorer in Damika Martinez (who had 36 and 25 points in the two previous tournament games) to 2-of-9 shooting for four points, and Iona only scored 48 points as a team.

"You could tell in the first five minutes that she (Martinez) was going to be in for a long day," said Giorgis, about work Ockenden was doing on Martinez. "I believe that Ockenden is better on defense than any player in our league is on offense."

Still, it didn't become a long day for Iona until early in the second half.

Down just five points after the second basket of the game by Martinez (on a fast-break layup, before Ockenden could get to her), the Gaels only scored three more points in the next seven minutes, a stretch in which it went 0-for-8 from the floor, got its only points during that time on free throws and didn't get a single offensive rebound after a miss.

Marist continued to water-torture the Gaels offensively, drip-by-drip, pass-by-pass until it found an open shots. After those key seven minutes the Red Foxes had a 54-34 lead with 11:15 left and the only mystery after that was about how quickly Giorgis would shed a tear during his post-game comments.

"We're a very young team, and you could sense the difference in experience levels," said Iona coach Tony Bozzella. "They've been through this before. But, when we fell behind by 11 or 13 points, I could see the angst in my kids. That's when Marist's experience really started to show. They've been through this, they've learned to do things in certain situations."

Mostly, Marist knows how to play together and unselfishly (six players scored between eight and 15 points), and how to play defense. Senior forward Elizabeth Beynnon led the winners with 15 points, followed by junior guard Casey Dulin and freshman guard Sydney Coffey (12 each), junior forward Emma O'Connor (11), senior reserve forward Kristina Danella (9) and Ockenden (8).

"It starts with our seniors and others who come back ... our newcomers learn from the older players about what's expected," said Giorgis. "They learn that they have to play on the defensive end if they want to play a lot. That just gets passed down. It's something you don't teach."

Defense? Iona had averaged 76.1 points per game over its previous nine games, including the first two rounds of this event. But, Marist not only held them to 48 on Monday, but to 40 the last time the teams met as well.

Iona, now 20-12 overall, has never Marist in Bozzella's 11 years as the Gaels coach.

Iona's season, though, isn't over. As the second-place finisher in regular-season play, it gets an automatic berth to the Women's NIT which begins next week. Iona will learn its opponent and first-round playing site (potentially a home game) late Sunday night.

The winners' defensive work might never have been as important as this season, when the program's only true legitimate post players, including 6-foot-3 Vanderbilt transfer Tori Jarosz, were both lost to injuries after the team's first two games. It left Giorgis having to adjust the team's style of play, converting to a smaller, quicker lineup, on the fly.

"There were a lot of questions when we lost those two post players," said Giorgis. "A lot of people around the league started to say that this was the year (that someone would finally beat Marist) ... and it wasn't. This was more about the players who care about nothing more than who wins and loses. I guess, in a lot of ways, I'm starting to believe that our program really works."

Which is what the rest of the league learned long ago.

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