Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tournament Women's Preview: Marist Strong Again

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

No. 2 SEED MARIST, will play in Friday's 7 p.m. quarterfinal round against Thursday's Manhattan-Siena winner.

MARIST'S RECORD: 18-2 in MAAC play, 24-6 overall.

WHAT MARIST HAS: Plenty. And, a two-loss season in which it shared the conference's regular-season title, is almost considered a surprise these days. But, it's not that Marist has slipped. It's just that Iona and Fairfield, the two teams that beat the Red Foxes in regular-season play, have elevated their respective levels. Marist played its best late, averaging 84.4 points in its last five games. It's the conference's only team with five double-figure scorers, led by senior post Emma O'Connor (13.8 points, 6.8 rebounds), sophomore swing person Madeline Blais (13.0, 4.1), senior guard Leanne Ockenden (11.8, 4.7), senior guard Casey Dulin (11.5, 4.2) and sophomore swingperson Sydney Coffey (10.8, 3.6). Marist runs a difficult-to-stop motion offense in which players move to areas as dictated by the opponent's defense. And, every player on the court can make shots. Every player in the starting five has more assists than turnovers. Tori Jarosz, who suffered an off-season Achilles tendon injury, finally appears close to full strength. The 6-foot-3 transfer from Vanderbilt had 21 points and 14 rebounds in the season's final game, a victory over Iona. The Red Foxes, as usual, lead the league in defense (allowing 58.9 points per game), and field goal percentage (46.8 percent ninth-best nationally) by a wide margin (Iona is next at 42.8 percent). And, as usual, Marist makes fewer mistakes than opponents. It ranks second nationally for fewest fouls committed and 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio. And, Ockenden, the likely Defensive Player of the Year, is capable of limiting damage from any perimeter opponent. Oh yeah, the Red Foxes also have the best coach in the league in Brian Giorgis.

WHAT MARIST DOESN'T HAVE: For much of the year it didn't have its normal depth with freshmen forward Kat Fogarty and guard Brittany Lai getting most of the minutes off the bench to varying degrees of success. But, both have been playing better of late as is junior guard Natalie Gomez-Martinez. And,  if Jarosz is close to full health, she gives the team as much quality in the top six players as any team in the league. Rebounding has also been an issue as Marist has operated at an 0.9 rebound-per-game deficit. But, again, Jarosz can single-handedly correct that flaw. In truth, there isn't much the Red Foxes don't have.

COMMENT: Iona appears to be a worthy opponent, should both it and Marist make the championship game and could really threaten the Red Foxes string of eight straight tournament championships. Then again, Marist had its way against the Gaels on Sunday, grabbing a 21-point lead midway through the second half and looking dominant in doing so. It would still be a surprise if someone other than Marist wins this year's tournament. But the quality of Iona, Fairfield and Quinnipiac would make that sort of upset a little less surprising than it would have been in past years.

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