Monday, January 13, 2014

Iona Women (Finally) Topples Marist In Key Battle

Meet the new boss of MAAC women's play, and it's not the same as the old boss.

It's Iona, which ended some historical streaks by earning a 73-71 victory over 10-time defending regular-season champion Marist on Monday night, and on the Red Foxes' home court no less.

For now, Iona now stands alone atop the conference women's standings with a 6-0 record. The win was the program's 12th in a row overall.

Marist, which came into the contest with a 10-game winning streak, slips to second place with a 5-1 mark.

It has been some time since Marist hasn't been the conference's first-place team. Marist had won its last 36 games in conference play ad had won 42 consecutive contests on its home court, including an upset win over Oklahoma, ranked No. 20 nationally, earlier this season at the McCann Arena.

The outcome set off a brief but enthusiastic on-court celebration by the Gaels before they moved back to the sideline to shake hands with their opponents.

No one could blame Iona for celebrating the outcome of an early regular-season contest, particularly considering that Marist had won the previous 29 meetings between the two programs.

Those included three wins a year ago, all by relatively lopsided scores including a 72-48 decision in last season's MAAC tournament championship game.

But, Iona appeared as strong a MAAC opponent as Marist has faced in some time with the Gaels having all five starters back from a year ago, including reigning conference Player of the Year 5-foot-7 junior guard Damika Martinez.

And, it was Martinez who delivered the game-winning basket with 2.9 seconds remaining in the contest when she dribbled to a spot about 16 feet from the basket, used an up fake to get defender Leanne Ockenden off her feet, ducked under Ockenden's arms and, then, squeezed off the shot over the outstretched hand of second defender Emma O'Connor.

Martinez's shot broke a 71-71 tie, and left Marist with just enough time to try a long in-bounds pass which Iona was able to intercept to secure the victory.

The winners needed to overcome a 10-point deficit early in the second half, never an easy task against as defensive-minded a team as Marist.

The Gaels, though, would never have gotten in position for Martinez' late-game heroics were it not for sophomore guard Aaliyah Robinson, who connected on four three-pointers in a four-minute second-half stretch, the last giving the winners a 63-62 advantage with 4:55 left to play.

Iona's lead was 71-67 with a little more than a minute left before Marist got a bucket by Ockenden, followed by one by O'Connor.

It left Iona in possession with 25 seconds left, and the winners ran the clock down until Martinez could get off her game-winner.

"It came down to the last play, and that's why she (Martinez) was the Player of the Year last year," said Marist coach Brian Giorgis, in his post-game remarks. "We knew she was getting the ball on that last play, and we couldn't do anything to stop it.

"But, Robinson was the key to the contest."

Robinson, a 5-9 sophomore, had made 14-of-38 three points on the season prior to Monday's game, but made all four of her second-half bonus attempts against the Red Foxes.

"We had too many people helping (defensively) off her," added the Marist coach. "And, we knew that's what she does. We didn't do a good job on that (contesting Robinson's long-range shots).

"They're a good team, and if we don't work hard and learn from this then it's a bad loss for us. One lesson our girls learned is that they can get beat. But, it all comes down to what happens in March (in the league's post season tournament) for this conference."

Martinez had 18 points for the winners, including 14 in the second half. Teammate Joy Adams, a 5-11 sophomore forward, also had 18 points and 14 rebounds while Robinson matched her career high in scoring with 17 points.

Sidney Coffey led Marist scorers with 17 points, while Casey Dulin had 16 and O'Connor added 14 points and 11 rebounds.

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