SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — At about 8:30 on Friday night, in a conference room of a hotel not far from the MassMutual Center, Marist coach Brian Giorgis gathered some of his players for a film session. That’s the way they’ve operated at Marist under Giorgis’ mind-boggling tenure. No detail is too small, no nuance unworthy of investigation and analysis. Perfection never rests.
The Red Foxes haven’t lost a game in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament since 2005 in downtown Buffalo. They’re on a quest for an eighth consecutive crown. You’d think they might be getting comfortable, complacent, but the drive of their coach persists and it’s manifest in the results. Their 61-36 semifinal conquest of Niagara on Saturday afternoon was as methodical as the tick of the clock.
Marist (24-6) moves on to Monday’s noon championship game against Iona, a young and talented team that didn’t come closer than 23 points in two regular-season meetings. For Niagara – which last year took the Red Foxes to overtime in this tournament – the chase resumes next season. Only one senior, Jessica Flamm, graduates from a team that won 15 games for the first time since 2004-05.
Niagara played the tournament without coach Kendra Faustin, who gave birth to her second child on Feb. 27. Assistant Corinne Jones took over in her absence. They also were without junior guard Chanel Johnson, who went down with a season-ending injury late in the schedule.
“I just want to make sure we all understand this game does not define our season,” Jones said. “It was a great journey. We had one of the best finishes in Niagara history in the last 10 years.”
“I think for Niagara’s program to continue to improve every year has been very important for us,” Flamm said. “We had a really bad season two years ago but we built a foundation to improve and look forward to success. As a senior it doesn’t feel good to leave but ... we’re back on our way.”
Less than five minutes had elapsed when Niagara encountered one of its worst-case scenarios: two fouls on all-conference forward Lauren Gatto. When the same thing happened about 13 minutes into the quarterfinal against Rider, Gatto sat out the rest of the half. This time the Purple Eagles had no such luxury. Gatto returned as the deficit approached double digits but by then Marist was in synch and went on to take a 24-12 halftime lead. Niagara led 6-4 when she was called for her second foul, a charge, with 15:44 to go.
“It’s not a position I want to be in but sometimes things just don’t go my way,” Gatto said. “It was tough but again my team did a great job of staying together and continuing to play and that’s all you can really do.”
Neither offense distinguished itself, especially early on, but for Niagara the misfires were particularly harmful. The Purple Eagles made two of their first five shots (both Gatto) and then hit on just one of their next nine.
Marist, meanwhile, began to find room on the inside. Casey Dulin scored on a pair of drives and Leanne Ockenden went to the paint for two more hoops to complete a 9-0 run that made it 17-8. They pulled away from there as Niagara shot just 27.5 percent for the game and placed one player in double figures (Kayla Stroman, 13).
“There’s a small margin of error playing Marist,” Jones said. “We stuck to what we could control. We took pride and set small goals down the stretch in the second half. We really wanted to keep them to around 60 points. That was our goal. You just can’t control whether that ball goes in or not and today it just wasn’t going in.”