Here's another in the series previewing the upcoming MAAC women's tournament.
No 4 Seed Rider (10-8 in MAAC play, 15-14 overall) vs. No. 5 seed Niagara (9-9, 14-15) in a quarterfinal-round game Friday at 3:30 p.m.
WHAT RIDER HAS: While the won-loss record looks relatively modest, the 10 league victories match the program's best (it also had 10 in the 1999-00 season) since joining the MAAC in 1997. And the 15 overall victories is the program's high-water mark since the 1994-95 season. It's all because the program has more talent than for much of its time in the MAAC and, this year (unlike last season), it stayed healthy. Junior forward MyNeshia McKenzie is a first-team all-MAAC pick and her 9.7 rebounds-per-game average is second among conference players. Center Caitlin Bopp is a second-team all-star. She ranks fourth in the league in rebounding (9.0) and is just the second player in program history with more than 900 points and 900 rebounds for her career. And, senior guard Sironda Chambers (12.9 ppg.) was left off the all-star squads, but could easily be considered one of the conference's top 15 players. The team has 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes of time per game, and some outside shooters to go along with its inside prowess. Chambers, sophomore Emily Fazzini and freshman Mikal Johnson all have made at least 30 three-pointers this season.
WHAT NIAGARA HAS: A first-team all-MAAC performer who is one of the league's top post players in 6-foot-2 junior Lauren Gatto (14.3 points, 6.3 rebounds). It also has one of the top long-range shooters in the conference in Meghan McGuinness (53 three pointers), depth (nine players with at least 9.6 minutes per game), an effective point guard in Kayla Stroman (116 assists vs. 96 turnovers) and some athleticism. It might have the confidence that it can play with Marist, which it would meet in the semifinal round, based on results from a year ago when it took the Red Foxes into double overtime in a regular-season game and into overtime in last season's MAAC tournament. Marist, though, won this year's meetings by 20 and 27 points.
WHAT RIDER DOESN'T HAVE: An above-average point guard. McKenzie leads the team in assists from her forward spot (1.7 per game), and she justifiably is looking to score more than pass when she has the ball. The role has been split between Fazzini, Johnson, freshman Taylor Wentzel and sophomores Manon Pellet and Kornelija Valiuskyte. And, despite the two big rebounders, Rider has surprisingly been outrebounded by an average of eight-tenths of a rebound per contest. And, Rider hasn't had success yet against its first-round opponent, having lost to Niagara by four and five points in the two regular-season meetings.
WHAT NIAGARA DOESN'T HAVE: An above .500 record, and that's somewhat surprising. The Purple Eagles came on strong late last season, played those two extra-session games with Marist and had every significant player returning. But, it has the same conference record as it did at this tie last season. Gatto provides offensive, but the team doesn't have that second "go-to" player. McGuinness is the next leading scorer at 9.8 per contest. There's also not a lot of momentum. Niagara lost its last two games prior to this event. It also hasn't helped to have its head coach, Kendra Faustin, away from the team on maternity leave, although she is expected to attend the tournament.
HOW RIDER CAN WIN: Getting something like an eight-point/six-assist/two-turnover performance from a point guard in every game. Otherwise, the Broncs have enough talent at the other four spots to contend with anyone. It wouldn't hurt if either McKenzie or Chambers put up big numbers in games. Those are the team's two primary offensive threats. The Broncs also have enough depth to handle a three-game run, including fifth-year reserve forward Carleigh Brown, who provides veteran-like court smarts off the bench. Otherwise, Rider's top reserves are all freshmen or sophomores. Then again, that's the same situation every other team in the conference faces.
HOW NIAGARA CAN WIN: Just get back to playing the way it did late last season when it won five of its last eight games with two of the losses in extra sessions to Marist. It probably wouldn't hurt if Stroman scored more, joining Gatto regularly in double figures. Stroman was the team's leading scorer a year ago, but her offense has fallen off by 4.5 points per game. Gatto, though, can cause problems with her versatility. She not only can score in the paint, but is capable of going out to 15 or 16 feet and hitting shots. Players like McGuinness, Val McQuade and Kelly Van Leeuwen, all capable long-range shooters, would also have to have good shooting nights. But, it's possible for Niagara to advance. It certainly was close last year with these same players.