MAAC women: Marist clearly the team to beat

Nationally ranked Marist looms as a strong favorite in the MAAC women's tournament., which opens tod

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MAAC men’s tournament bracket

To view the bracket for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament, click here.

Perhaps the only way to beat the Marist women in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament is to sabotage their alarm clocks.

The nationally ranked Red Foxes come into the tournament, which starts today at the Times Union Center with two first-round games, as huge favorites.

Because the tournament is being held in conjunction with the men’s tournament, most of the women’s games will be held in the morning, including the 11 a.m. championship game on Sunday.

It’s hard to believe that Marist won’t make it there after finishing the regular season at 18-0 in the MAAC and 28-2 overall. This week, the Red Foxes, who reached the Sweet 16 at the 2007 NCAA tournament, moved up to 24th in The Associated Press coaches’ poll and 20th in the USA Today/ESPN poll.

Anything can happen when you play three days in a row, though; that’s what the other nine teams have to believe, anyway.

“Certainly, someone’s capable of doing that [beating Marist], but it takes a flawless game,” Siena head coach Gina Castelli said.

The Saints (7-11 MAAC, 11-17 overall) won their final regular-season game in overtime over Rider to clinch the sixth seed and get a first-round bye before playing No. 3 Fairfield at 11:30 Friday morning.

Today, No. 7 Loyola will play

No. 10 Rider at noon, followed by No. 8 Canisius against No. 9

Niagara at 2 p.m.

The winner of that game gets the distinction of taking the first crack at Marist at 1:30 on Friday.

Last year, Marist reached the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons.

In Brian Giorgis’ fifth season as head coach, the Red Foxes won a school-record 29 games, including NCAA tournament victories over fourth-seeded Ohio State (67-63) and Middle Tennessee State (73-59) to reach the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion Tennessee, 65-49.

“Considering how tough the league has been from two to whatever, it’s really remarkable what they’ve done,” Castelli said. “And then losing [Alisa] Kresge, who I thought was a really great player for them, to graduation, they’ve really done a great job. And now they’re close to being in the top 20, which is awesome for our league.”

Kresge graduated as the Red Foxes’ all-time assists leader and was a three-time MAAC defensive player of the year.

One ray of hope for the other nine MAAC teams is that, despite their dominance, the Red Foxes needed overtime to beat Iona in the MAAC championship game.

This season, Marist lost its season opener at Ohio State and lost to Hartford at home on Dec. 12 before snapping off 18 straight victories.

“A lot of teams have played them close,” Castelli said. “Saint Peter’s had a good game against them at Marist, Manhattan did, we did the second game, but it has to be flawless. You can’t turn the ball over much against Marist, and you have to play good defense.”

The Saints, who wouldn’t meet Marist unless they both make it to the championship game, were crushed by the Red Foxes, 78-48, early in the season, then lost at home, 79-70.

In their last three games, the Red Foxes beat Manhattan by 10 and Saint Peter’s twice by 13.

Julianne Viani, Marist’s second-leading scorer and most prolific three-point shooter, missed the season finale with mononucleosis. She made four of six three-pointers and scored 18 points in the 78-48 victory, for which the Marist women sold out the 3,200-seat McCann Center for the first time in program history.

“One of the keys to being successful in this tournament is staying healthy,” Castelli said.

Marist is led by sophomore Rachele Fitz, the 2007 rookie of the year who finished the regular season at 18.9 points per game, just behind Siena’s Laura Menty (19.4) for the MAAC scoring lead.

Those two made the all-conference first team, and Marist’s Viani, who leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio, and Nikki Flores were on the second team.

Marist held its opponents to by far the lowest field goal percentage in the MAAC.

“They’re a good defensive team, and they’re obviously a great execution team,” Castelli said.

If Siena keeps winning, the Saints won’t play any games that start before noon.

“The thing that makes the women’s tournament a little bit more difficult is the times of the games,” Castelli said. “That is the hardest. It’s waking up at 6 o’clock for a 9:30 game. Everybody’s different in terms of their body and when they wake up. Some are morning people, some aren’t.

“I like it together [with the men’s tournament], too, it’s a great atmos­phere, it’s festive, but that’s where it ends up being a little tough, that we don’t get these great times. And I can’t say the men like it, either. I don’t know which is worse, early morning or late at night. You’re doomed for some injuries somewhere along the line.”

All four of Friday’s games will be broadcast on MSG, as well as the 9:30 a.m. semifinal on Saturday.

The championship game will be broadcast on Fox Sports New York.

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