Monday, March 3, 2014

Tournament Women's Preview: Niagara vs. Monmouth

With the announcement of seeding positions/tournament brackets for the MAAC's upcoming post-season event for men and women ... it is officially Tournament Time.

I know we all wax poetically about early October's days, about how the first day of practice is like Christmas Day. That's when it's time to start looking at presents, to see what we're going to get.

By now, we know what we have, for the most part. And, now, it's a time to see if that's good enough.

Now is when teams are playing for something truly meaningful ... not that a regular-season championship isn't something special. But, it's now when NCAA tournament bids are up for grabs. And, that's the best gift of all.

Right now is truly the best time of the year. That's why we call it "March Madness."

As the conference event approaches we'll be doing previews on every team's chances.

We'll start with the women's side of things, since the ladies tip it off first with first-round (play-in) games on Thursday. All games will be played, of course, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.

First up ...

No. 8 SEED NIAGARA vs. No. 9 SEED MONMOUTH, Thursday, 9:30 a.m.

RECORDS: Niagara is 8-12 in MAAC play, 10-19 overall; Monmouth is 6-14, 7-24. Niagara won both regular-season meetings.

WHAT NIAGARA HAS: The confidence of two regular-season victories over the Hawks, although by just three and eight points. A standout slasher in 6-foot wing Chanel Johnson (13.3 points, 5.4 rebounds), some of the league's best outside shooting, led by junior guard Meghan McGuinness (12.9 ppg.) whose 81 made treys this year is third in the conference, as is her 43.3 accuracy from bonus territory. Also, freshman center Victoria Rampado has stepped up of late, contributing some double-double efforts and filling what had been an early season hole in the middle for the Purple Eagles.

WHAT MONMOUTH HAS: Despite an eight-game losing streak before a lopsided victory over Siena in its final game of the year, a definite team of the future, and the future might be starting now. There's also considerable depth, with the Hawks going 10 deep in most games. Chevannah Paalvast is the requisite do-everything player (13.3 pints, 5.3 rebounds. And, the team has more height than any team in the conference, starting with 6-4 junior Sara English (5.9, 5.8). Two other 6-4 players, freshmen Christina Mitchell and Sophie Beaudry come off the bench to contribute. There's also a solid freshman point guard in Helena Kurt, who made four consecutive three-pointers against Siena on Sunday.

WHAT NIAGARA DOESN'T HAVE: Despite Rampado's contributions, the Purple Eagles are still otherwise undersized up front. Niagara also struggles to take care of the ball. Its 18.5 turnovers per contest is worst in the league.

WHAT MONMOUTH DOESN'T HAVE: Offensive fire power, averaging just 57.1 points per game, second-worst in the conference. Paalvast is the only double-figure scorer and no teammate averages more than 7.4 points per contest. But, the Hawks did score a season's best 80 vs. Siena on Sunday.

WHAT NIAGARA NEEDS TO DO TO WIN: Cut down on turnovers and create open looks, particularly for long-range snipers McGuinness and McQuade. And, continue to get high-quality performances from Rampado, who is the likely Rookie of the Year winner in the league.

WHAT MONMOUTH NEEDS TO DO TO WIN: If only the Hawks could play Siena ... they scored 80 against the Saints on Sunday, and had another lopsided win (64-49) over Siena earlier in the year. If Monmouth could duplicate Sunday's effort of outside shooting by Kurt, the solid mid-range game from Paalvast and the contributions of the three 6-4 post players, it will be a tough out.

COMMENT: One of the best play-in round games in recent memory. Both teams exceeded expectations, and both are capable of beating higher-finishing opponents. And, both will be more significant factors a year from now.

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