Now in 11th season, Iona head coach Tony Bozzella's latest efforts include 7-game winning streak and No. 2 seed in MAAC Tournament with his young overachieving Gaels team. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)
Traditionally, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference women's basketball has had a hierarchy of sorts over the years. There is Marist, and essentially everyone else. Maybe Fairfield is the second team mentioned, but there has been no question that the Red Foxes get the bulk of the attention around these parts, and deservedly so. This year, however, head coach Brian Giorgis has a serious threat to what would be his eighth consecutive conference championship; and it is not Fairfield, but another program about an hour to the south of the McCann Center in Poughkeepsie.
Iona College has once again made a name for itself in the women's ranks this season after recent seasons as a powerhouse on the men's side under Tim Cluess. With a roster that features only two seniors and three juniors, hardly anyone expected the Gaels would be 18-11 at this point, nor would anyone have envisioned Iona's 13-5 MAAC record with so much youth that has both clearly overachieved and thrived under the patient leadership of head coach Tony Bozzella, who has gone from a 1-27 record in his inaugural 2002-03 campaign at the New Rochelle institution to six winning seasons in his last eight, with a pair of WNIT appearances sprinkled in.
A season such as this one, where the Gaels enter this week's MAAC Tournament on a seven-game winning streak and having won eight of their last nine after dropping to 10-10 on the year, is a typical result for the 47-year-old Bozzella, who has earned his reputation for signing underrated prospects and coaching them into solid players over their four years; and in the case of sophomore guard and MAAC Player of the Year contender Damika Martinez, occasional superstars.
Martinez leads the charge for the Gaels, averaging over seventeen points per game and shooting 41 percent from three-point range as an encore to a campaign in which the Connecticut product was awarded Rookie of the Year honors in the MAAC. Along with point guards Haley D'Angelo (3.4 assists per game) and Aleesha Powell, (3.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game) Martinez essentially has free rein to impose her will in the backcourt while walking double-double Joy Adams (13.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) stands to become Bozzella's second straight top freshman honoree.
Iona, who shoots 37 percent from three-point range this season, not only has a big road win against Fairfield during their recent stretch run, but has also done well in their nonconference slate, something that will help them if they are fortunate enough to continue on in the postseason. Aside from a trip to Duke that did not fare so well, the Gaels have a road win against Long Beach State on their ledger, and stayed in the game against a then-ranked St. John's team for most of the second half before the Red Storm pulled away in the final minutes.
Of course, the safe pick this week will be Marist, but the smart fan who has seen their share of MAAC women's basketball this year will recognize Iona as more than just a flash in the pan and a serious title contender with the players and coach who have demonstrated that they are more than capable of getting it done.
Iona opens the MAAC Tournament with a 9:30 am tipoff Friday against the winner of a Thursday afternoon play-in game between Canisius and Saint Peter's. Nick Guerriero and Jon Stanko will have the call for every game the Gaels play in Springfield this weekend via the "Iona Insider" on ICGaels.com.