Flawless finish for Red Foxes

The 24th-ranked Marist Red Foxes pounced on Iona, 83-63, on Sunday at the Times Union Center to win
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In the first game, they didn’t like the ball.

In the second game, they didn’t like Nikki Flores’ turnovers.

The third was just right.

The 24th-ranked Marist Red Foxes pounced on Iona, 83-63, on Sunday at the Times Union Center to win their fourth Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in the last five years, extending their winning streak to 21 games and their overall record to 31-2.

The Red Foxes won, but didn’t play up to par, in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Their shooters complained about an old game ball in a close win over Canisius, then their point guard notched a dubious double-double — 14 points and 10 turnovers — in beating Saint Peter’s in the semis.

On Sunday, a year after needing overtime to beat Iona in the MAAC title game, Marist was flawless.

Iona led by three midway through the first half, but the Red Foxes ran away with the game from there, as backup center Sarah Smrdel won the tournament MVP with 14 points and seven rebounds.

“We saved our best for last,” Marist head coach Brian Giorgis said. “We basically played a perfect game today, and what a fitting ending for a perfect season.”

It’s far from over, though. The Red Foxes will head to the NCAA tournament, where they reached the Sweet 16 last year before losing to eventual champion Tennessee.

“We certainly know that we can’t crawl up and bite somebody, like we did last year,” Flores said. “The target’s on our back now, now that we’re ranked. People know about us. Last year, they didn’t really know too much about us, but our experience last year in the tournament is going to help us move forward in the NCAA tournament this year.”

Flores ripped through the Iona (19-13) defense during a 17-2 run that turned a 20-18 deficit into a 35-22 lead with 4:43 left in the first half.

In scoring nine straight by herself, she came off a pick for a jumper, made two free throws, a three-pointer and a tough drive.

Sitting on the stage in the interview room with one of the nets draped around her neck, Flores was able to laugh about her poor stats against Saint Peter’s.

“It was like a big joke on our team, that I had a double-double last night,” she said. “But I promised them, ‘Listen, I will not have 10 turnovers this game, I promise.’ ”

“She clearly played 180 degrees different than she did yesterday,” Iona head coach Tony Bozzella said, “We couldn’t control her. She got into the lane, made some tough shots. I was talking to my point guard and said, ‘She’s taking, really, not great shots,’ and my player said, ‘Yeah, but she’s making them.’ She is their catalyst. When she plays well, they are not going to lose.”

Smrdel, a 6-foot-2 center, wore the other net around her neck, while her father, Ed, and wheelchair-bound mother, Ann, watched from the back of the interview room, having driven seven hours from Ohio for the tournament.

Ann Smrdel suffers from a disease that caused kidney failure, which was complicated when she developed a hematoma and staph infection from a catheter that had been inserted in her leg.

Her daughter doesn’t start, but she came up big in the semis when Marist’s front-line stars, MAAC player of the year Rachele Fitz and Meg Dahlman, were in foul trouble, and she had a putback early in the decisive run on Sunday and made both of her three-point attempts.

“I get a little nervous, watching her play, just because I want her to do good,” Ann Smrdel said.

“It was nice to get that award, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t wake up in the morning thinking about that,” Sarah Smrdel said. “All that’s important is getting your team the win, and making it to another tournament.

“Coming to basketball helps me get my mind off things, but at the same time, being so far away from home, you never know what was going to happen during that time. I took some time off so I could be with her. She’s making a good

recovery now, so it’s definitely been a blessing that she was able to make it this weekend.”

Depending on the site and travel accommodations, the Smrdels hope to make it to the NCAAs.

The Red Foxes, ranked 24th by The Associated Press and 20th by ESPN/USA Today, have reason to believe they’ll get a better seed than the No. 14 received last year, when they beat Ohio State and Middle Tennessee State.

“It’s exciting and nerve-wracking,” Fitz said. “As soon as you get to a different level, everyone’s bigger and better, and you have to adjust your game more and be smart in what you do and the decisions you make.”

IONA (63)

Headen 5-16 5-5 15, Smith 4-11 1-1 9, McLean 1-6 1-2 3, DeFalco 4-13 0-0 11, Cook 5-10 0-2 12, Hadjiyankova 0-0 0-0 0, Ricketts 0-1 0-0 0, Fregosi 1-3 0-0 3, Ritz 1-1 0-0 3,

Huber 0-0 0-0 0, Lutz 0-2 0-0 0, Ivkovic 1-2 5-6 7. Totals: 22-65 12-16 63.

MARIST (83)

Fitz 6-14 8-8 20, Dahlman 2-9 0-0 4,

Viani 4-9 4-6 14, Allenspach 6-9 5-5 18, Flores

4-11 2-2 11, Caron 0-0 0-0 0, Engle 0-3 0-0 0, Laterza 0-0 0-0 0, Waters 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 1-3 0-0 2, Huff 0-0 0-0 0, Smrdel 5-6 2-2 14. Totals: 28-64 21-23 83.

Halftime: Marist 44, Iona 30. Three-point goals: Iona 7-18 (Headen 0-4, Smith 0-1, DeFalco 3-5, Cook 2-3, Fregosi 1-2, Ritz 1-1, Lutz 0-1, Ivkovic 0-1); Marist 6-17 (Dahlman 0-2, Viani 2-5, Allenspach 1-2, Flores 1-4, Engle

0-1, Johnson 0-1, Smrdel 2-2). Rebounds: Iona 41 (McLean 9); Marist 40 (Dahlman, Smrdel 7). Assists: Iona 13 (DeFalco 5); Marist 18 (Viani 6). Total fouls: Iona 17; Marist 13. Attendance: 3,389.

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