Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Women's Tournament preview: Fairfield vs. Siena

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

No. 3 Seeded Fairfield (11-7 in MAAC play, 17-12 overall) vs. No. 6 Siena (8-10, 12-17), in a quarterfinal-round game Friday at 11:30 a.m.

WHAT FAIRFIELD HAS: A precision offense predicated on a thick playbook that really tests defenses. Defensively, statistics show that Fairfield's points-allowed-average (53.2) is second-best in the league. But, that's partially because the Stags rarely push things offensively, preferring to settle into the half court to run its plays, a tactic that cuts down every game's total possessions. It has second-team all-MAAC players in forwards Katie Cizynski and Brittany Obi-Tabot  and plenty of long-range firepower in guards Katelyn Linney (53 treys this season) and Alexys Vazquez (64). Felicia DaCruz and Christelle Akon-Akech have effectively shared point-guard duties. Also, Fairfield showed what it's capable of when it's at its best with an early season five-point loss to Marist (Jan. 6) when it possessions to go ahead in the final minute and tie in the final 15 seconds, but missed shots both times.

WHAT SIENA HAS: Arguably the best player in the MAAC in 6-foot-1 senior forward Lily Grenci, the conference's only player who ranks in the top three in both scoring and rebounding, and her work has come against regular double- and triple-team defenses all season. Siena also has one of the league's top disruptive defensive forces in sophomore guard Tehresa Coles (88 steals), a solid candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors. There's also a considerable amount of depth with nine individuals averaging at least 11 minutes of playing time per contest. Defensively, its "blizzard," (a match-up zone) has been effective at times and is proficient at getting opponents to turn the ball over. And, the Saints' inside game is effective and averages two rebounds per game more than opponents.

WHAT FAIRFIELD DOESN'T HAVE: It might not have Obi-Tabot, who is arguably the league's most-improved player from a year ago and a real force in the paint. She suffered a shoulder injury two weeks ago and has missed the past three games. Coach Joe Frager said he was still uncertain, as of Monday afternoon, if Obi-Tabot would be able to play in Friday's contest. Her loss is big, both literally and figuratively.She has been the best defender against Grenci in the two previous meetings, both Fairfield victories (by six and seven points). Without Tabot, Fairfield has been 1-3 down the stretch (losing to Niagara, Loyola and Marist), so the team also lacks momentum.

WHAT SIENA DOESN'T HAVE: A consistent "second fiddle" to Grenci's virtuoso solo performance. Coles (at 9.1 ppg.) is the next-leading scorer. The Saints also lack almost any sort of outside attack.They shoot just 33.3 percent from the floor, ninth in the MAAC and in the bottom 20 nationally of 343 Division I teams. Defensively, the Saints' zone has been victimized by outside shooters (including Fairfield's Vazquez, who made three wide-open three-pointers in the closing minutes of the Stags' first win over the Saints). There has also been considerable inconsistency throughout the year and Siena suffered back-to-back 20-point-plus\losses (to Iona and Rider) before finishing out with a season-ending victory over Canisius.

HOW FAIRFIELD CAN WIN: Just run that offensive effectively, find open shots and make them. Linney is the program's all-time leader in made three-pointers, and Vazquez would have  been No. 2 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage last season had she made enough to qualify for the national leaders. Freshman Kristin Schatzlein (21 treys this year) gives the Stags yet another outside option. Fairfield, though, almost assuredly needs Obi-Tabot to be relatively healthy to have any chance to make a run in this event. Without her, the likely starter is senior Brittany MacFarlane, who has battled rheumatoid arthritis all season and hasn't been the player she was a year ago when she was the MAAC's Sixth Player of the Year.

HOW SIENA CAN WIN: Do effectively what it has tried to do (and has done well at times) all season, which is pound the ball inside, particularly to Grenci, and get to the foul line. The defense, though, will have to be better than usual guarding the three-point line, which is almost always a concern for teams that play primarily a zone.  Someone will have to step up offensively to support Grenci, and Siena will have to make its open looks, a trait that hasn't been there often enough. Tough to envision a team coming out of the No 6 spot getting past both No. 3 (Fairfield) and, then, probably No. 2 (Iona) before getting to the championship game. Yet ... Fairfield will be vulnerable if Obi-Tabot isn't at her best, and Siena does have an early season victory over the Gaels.

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