MAAC Player of the Year Damika Martinez is averaging 30.5 points per game in conference tournament for Iona, which meets conference powerhouse Marist today with league championship at stake. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)
On one side of the court, you have the proven kingpin of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, winners of eight conference championships in the last nine years and seven in a row, under the direction of a man who has done more than just change the culture at his program. Directly across the bench, you have a young team that represents not just the future of the league, but also the MAAC's best shot at dethroning the top dog and proving that there truly is a second team capable of success at this level.
So describes this afternoon's meeting between Marist and Iona, with the MAAC championship hanging in the balance as Brian Giorgis and the Red Foxes look for their eighth consecutive crown and ninth in ten seasons at the expense of the overachieving Gaels, who make their first appearance in the title game since 2008, when they were defeated by the same Marist team they face today as the pride of Poughkeepsie danced away with their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"When we came back from Canada, (Iona's preseason trip) I was like 'we have a pretty good team,' and Joy Adams hadn't even played well yet; and then I saw we got picked eighth, (in the MAAC preseason poll) so I turned to my staff, and I go 'if we're the eighth-best team in this league, then we're in the Big East right now," Iona coach Tony Bozzella said in regard to the depth of the MAAC, where Marist has reigned supreme since Giorgis arrived in the Hudson Valley back in 2002, which was ironically Bozzella's first season in New Rochelle after two successful campaigns at LIU Brooklyn.
Bozzella has exceeded expectations with the 20-11 Gaels, winners of nine straight and ten of their last eleven entering a championship clash with a Marist team that capped off an undefeated conference season and enters the MassMutual Center on the heels of two relatively easy efforts in the earlier rounds of the tournament where the Red Foxes surrendered a grand total of 86 points, including 36 in their semifinal victory over Niagara.
"I think they're a tremendous team," Bozzella said with regard to his opponent. "They're well-coached, the sum is greater than the parts, and they play very well together. It's hard to key on one or two kids, so we've got to do a good job on them. They're a well-balanced team."
That's not to say that Iona is lacking in depth, because they are surely not. Besides sophomore Damika Martinez scoring 61 points in the Gaels' first two tournament games after earning MAAC Player of the Year honors, her backcourt partners Aleesha Powell and Haley D'Angelo have made significant impact on games with their defensive efforts to back up their exceptional scoring prowess. Then there is Joy Adams, the conference's Rookie of the Year who leads the nation with sixteen double-doubles, including five in a row and eight in her last nine games.
"She's going to have to make those 15-foot jump shots," Bozzella said of his top freshman when asked about how she would handle Marist's defensive pressure. "They're going to give it to her, and she has to take it."
As far as the battle of the wits on the benches, the eleventh-year Iona coach has nothing but the utmost respect for his counterpart and what he has done with the Marist program he inherited the same season Bozzella was hired to lead the Gaels.
"He's a great coach, probably one of the best coaches in the country," Bozzella remarked of Brian Giorgis. "He's a model of consistency, and his teams are consistent. He brings a respectability to our conference. Not only does he win our conference, he wins games in the NCAA Tournament, and that's really impressive as well."
When asked what it would take to achieve the improbable, Iona's leader was brutally honest.
"We have to score the ball," said an emphatic Bozzella. "We're not winning 42-40. When we shoot it, we have to make it. We can't give them second chances."
Iona attempts to slay the giant later today, facing Marist at noon for the MAAC championship, which would be the first-ever in program history if the underdog Gaels can spring the upset.