Sunday, March 8, 2009

Marist Sets Bar, Reaches Historical Heights

ALBANY, N.Y. - Even on a day when some of its key players weren't at their best physically the Marist women's basketball team continued to make the rest of the league sick - or, at least sick with envy - by winning the MAAC tournament championship with relative ease earning a 78-63 victory over Canisius in Sunday's championship game.

The outcome sends the Red Foxes to the NCAA's for the fourth consecutive season and makes Marist the first program, either men's or women's, to win the tournamant title that many times in succession.

Sunday Marist did it with key reserve forward Lynzee Johnson (16 points, eight rebounds in a semifinal-round game a day earlier) unable to play, starting point guard Elise Caron limited to 21 minutes and another top reserve, forward Brandy Gang limited as well, all due to virus-like symptoms.

But that adversity hardly affected Marist on Sunday as senior guard Julianne Viani and sophomore guard Erica Allenspach each stepped up with 22-point efforts, and junior forward Rachele Fitz, the conference's two-time Player of the Year, had a typical 18-point, 14-rebound performance.

Instead, it's the rest of the league that must be getting sick of Marist's continued domination.

"They have definitely raised the bar for everyone else," said Canisius coach Terry Zeh, whose team is now 24-8 and will participate in the Women's NIT. "It's to the point that when you're recruiting you're thinking if the players you bring in are capable of beating Marist.

"They are good. If you want to win this league you know you have to go through them. Some things are certain ... in the winter it's going to snow in Buffalo, and in March you have to go through Marist in the MAAC tournament."

Coincidentally, Canisius is the last team to stop Marist in the tournament, beating the Red Foxes, 60-59, in the 2005 event.

And even that memory helped fuel Marist's incentive on Sunday.

"I was in the program as a red-shirt that season," said Viani. "So, I remembered that game. And, Nikki Flores (a Marist guard who graduated last year) visited us last night (Saturday) and reminded. I think it did give us some more incentive. I know id did for me. I didn't want a repeat of that."

There was one other thing Marist didn't want a repeat of, and that was its 68-60 loss to Canisius on Feb. 6, one of two conference games the Red Foxes lost this season.

"The other loss was to Fairfield, coming the first time we played them," said Marist coach Brian Giorgis. "So, we had a chance to get them back (in the second regular-season meeting).

"But, I was kind of glad that our the loss to Canisius came the second time we played them, so our kids had that to respond to (on Sunday)."

Marist also didn't want a repeat of 11-for-20 shooting from 3-point range from Canisius that occurred in the last meeting, and prevented that, too.

Canisius managed to make just 6-of-23 shots from 3-point territory, and the last five made treys came after the winners already had built a 15-point lead late in the first half.

Canisius cut its deficit to six with 13:30 remaining in the first half, but Marist then took a proverbial page from its opponent's game plan when Viani and Allenspach each made two treys in the next four minutes to push the lead back to 14, 61-47, with 9:33 left.

"Like I told the girls in the lockerroom after the game ... out of all the championships that we've won this one was probably the most rewarding," said Giorgis. "If people knew the adversities with the illnesses and things we've had all year .... and, then, to wake up the morning of the championship game with our trainer outside my door to tell me that we have three kids throwing up and that one's the first player off the bench, another is the second player off the bench and the other is our starting point guard ...

"But these kids have gutted it out all year, and gutted it out today. The siggn of a great team is how that team handles adversity. We handled it with grit and determination and I have never been so proud of these young ladies."

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