Saturday, January 11, 2014

McGuinness Helping Niagara Women Excede Forecast

It was an off-season of change for the Niagara women's basketball team.

Three starters from a squad that was a solid 9-9 in MAAC play and 15-16 overall left the program despite each having one remaining season of eligibility.

It turned a team that might have contended to finish near the top of this season's standings into a too-easy to dismiss also-ran.

In any transition that drastic new players step in and new roles develop.

The transition, of late, seems to be moving in a positive direction and no Niagara player has stepped into an important role to bring about some recent success as has 5-foot-10 junior guard Meghan McGuinness.

Never was that more evident than in Niagara's 76-72 victory over Siena Friday night at Albany's Times Union Center.

McGuinness, a slightly built perimeter player, doesn't look capable of devastating performances, but her looks are deceiving.

She dropped in a career-best 29 points against the Saints on 8-of-12 shooting, including 7-of-11 from three-point territory, in the contest.

And, it seemed, she delivered key baskets whenever her team needed them. Her last two were indicative.

With the game tied at 61-61 with about two minutes remaining, teammate Chanel Johnson made a traditional three-point play to give Niagara a 3-point edge. And, then, McGuinness drained back-to-back treys to seal the deal, pushing the winners' lead to seven with under a minute remaining.

Before that every one of her six other baskets came with her team either trailing or holding a one-point edge.

It's not as if opponents aren't aware of McGuinness's shooting ability. She now has 143 career three-pointers and is shooting a commendable 40.7 percent from bonus territory over her career to date. This season she's even better, now at a 43 percent accuracy rate from beyond the three-point stripe.

But on Saturday Siena played its traditional zone defense that emphasizes pressure on the ball, often leaving other players unguarded on the perimeter. McGuinness was often that open Purple Eagles, teammates regularly found her on the perimeter for goof shots and she delivered.

"I guess I was in that `zone,' " said McGuinness, about the state of being shooters occasionally inhabit when the basket looks twice as big as normal and every shot seems to fall. "I had no idea that I had 29 points until I made my last two free throws (with eight seconds remaining), and looked up at the scoreboard. It didn't even feel like I had that many."

But she had plenty, the highest point total she has ever scored in a game at any level.

As is the case with those successful in any walk of life, McGuinness's on-court success is a product of hard work.

"I haven't always been a good shooter," she said. "It's something that has definitely developed. I just take a lot of shots every day. I'm usually at the gym early for practice and stay late and put up a lot of shots."

"There are not many times before and after practice when she and Val McQuade (a junior forward who shoots three's at a 42.6 percent rate this season) aren't there taking shots," said Niagara coach Kendra Faustin.

Faustin claims the challenge has simply been to get McGuinness to take shots in games.

Desite a rare shooting touch, she only averaged 6.8 points and 9.6 points over her first two seasons.

"There's a mental side to being a shooter," added Faustin. "We've told her that it's her job to make shots. If she's not making them, she still has to take the next one, but sometimes doing that is tough.

"It's a matter of knowing when she has to shoot, and handling the mental pressure of being the shot-maker. In her freshman year she would miss a shot and, then, wouldn't want to to play defense or to take the next shot. I've had to tell here that she's our shot-taker, that's her role. I've told her if she doesn't take shots we don't have a chance to be successful. If she doesn't take open shots she hears about it from me."

McGuinness, now, is a more-mature junior better able to handle the mental aspect of stepping into that role.

"After we lost some players from last season I knew I had to step up," she said. "I knew we needed more scoring. Chanel (Johnson) has stepped up, and Val (McQuade) has stepped up. Everyone has a bigger role. I've got a bigger role scoring wise and in terms of leadership."

That Niagara's players appear to be understanding that need has helped the team start exceeding expectations.

Although its overall record is only 4-10 thus far, it has won two of its last three with the loss by only a 10-point margin against Iona, which is currently 5-0 in league play.

"In college basketball there are role changes every year regardless of the personnel," added Faustin. "It has taken some time to define roles for our players, but they're starting to embrace those roles. It's why we're playing better."

Right now Niagara is playing better than most expected.

"I think we're better than the predictions that were made for us," said McGuinness. "I think we'll keep moving up."

Niagara's chances for that won't be hurt if McGuinness keeps putting up shots and making them like she did in her 29-point effort against Siena on Friday.

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