Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Ray Floriani's MAAC women's basketball notebook

Joe Frager discusses Stags' effort against Saint Peter's with John Cummings of WVOF Radio. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)

Jersey City, NJ­ - Jada Pierce has worked for a number of highly successful coaches whom she calls friends as well as mentors. The first-year coach at Niagara did not expect someone she was lining up to play imparting advice on this December day. The scene was two days prior to Christmas. Niagara was visiting rival St. Bonaventure for an afternoon contest. Prior to the game, St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley spoke with Pierce. “He (Crowley) told me things I would have to deal with and expect as a first-year Division I head coach,” Pierce said following last Friday’s win at Saint Peter’s . “He reached out and gave me some wonderful insight and advice. Coach Crowley is an excellent coach and a wonderful person.” For the record, St. Bonaventure defeated Niagara, 67-­55. “We gave them everything we had,” Pierce said.

Niagara began 2-­10, losing their first three MAAC contests. Win number one came at home last Monday against Fairfield. The Purple Eagles took to the road and swept their ‘Garden State’ trip, defeating Saint Peter’s and Rider.

Sam Lapszynski, a 6-3 senior, and Kaylee Stroemple, a 5­-11 junior, are double-digit scorers and “our bread and butter” per Pierce. The background of Pierce’s philosophy is defense, her cornerstone of a successful program. She prefers man-to-man, but given the numbers, is utilizing a lot of zone this season.

Prior to arriving at Niagara, Pierce gained an outstanding coaching education, a virtual basketball Ph.D., if you will. She served as an assistant at notable locales as Army, Delaware, Mount St. Mary’s, Marist, UMass, UMass Lowell, and most recently, Saint Joseph’s. In addition, there was a stop as head coach at Division II Cheyney. She has learned a wealth of knowledge and gained valuable experience at each stop, but especially treasures her days working with Brian Giorgis at Marist (as a member of the staff during the 2007 Sweet 16 run) and Cindy Griffin at Saint Joseph’s. “Cindy and I text and talk several times a week,” Pierce said.

In what is emerging a wide open MAAC, no one expects Niagara to contend. On the half-full side, this is a team improving and gaining confidence, one with three straight conference wins in the books, confident and hungry for more.

“When I spoke with coach Crowley back before that game in December,” she said, “I looked up at those championship and postseason banners hanging in Reilly Center. I told him, ‘Coach, that’s what I want. I want banners hanging from our home court, Gallagher Center.

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Probably one of the biggest story lines to date in the MAAC is what has happened to Fairfield. Pegged by many as a conference favorite, the Stags are currently 1­-5. Following Sunday’s 56­-46 loss at Saint Peter’s, Fairfield coach Joe Frager assessed his team’s status quo.

“We had some injuries early,” Frager said, and getting everyone back has taken time to jell. With all fairness, looking at this conference and our team, I don’t think we should have been selected as a favorite. I do think we are among the top three teams, but I don’t know if getting the favorite’s choice has put undue pressure on our team.”

The most recent woes have been on the offensive end. Entering the Saint Peter’s game, the offensive efficiency in MAAC play was 85 (teams aspire to hit or be close as possible to the century mark). Against Saint Peter’s, the Stags managed just 70. “It got to the point where our offense struggled,” Frager said, “then our defense began to let down as well.”

The positive side of all this is there is a lot of basketball to be played, fourteen more conference games before the postseason get-together in Albany. Frager knows there is time but realizes, “we need improvement, and it has to start happening for us very soon.

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Saint Peter’s aforementioned win over Fairfield saw Hala Mostafa narrowly miss a triple-double. The Peacock senior scored 15 points, hauled down nine rebounds, and blocked eight shots. Saint Peter’s media relations director Dave Musil notes the first thing Mostafa does after every game is ask how many blocked shots she had. “Blocking shots, defense, is something I love,” Mostafa said. 

“What she has been doing for us is something we knew she could do all along,” Saint Peter’s coach Pat Coyle said. “She just had to realize and believe what she was capable of.” Mostafa now believes, so do the opponents.

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A quick tempo-free look at the MAAC: Conference standings are followed by overall efficiency margin (EM). The EM is the defensive efficiency subtracted from offense. Naturally, positive numbers are the more desirable. All games and records are as of January 10, 2016:

Iona (6-0, EM +2)
Siena (5-0, +2)
Manhattan (3-2, -1)
Monmouth (3-2,-5)
Marist (3-2, -13)
Niagara (3-3, -15)
Quinnipiac (2-3, -1)
Canisius (2-4, -1)
Saint Peter's (2-4, -12)
Fairfield (1-5, -4)
Rider (0-6, -15)

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