It was a night four (or five) years in the making. The Marist senior class won its final home game and clinched a share of the regular-season MAAC title with an 81-69 win over in-state rival Siena.
“I’m really proud of the team,” said Marist head coach Brian Giorgis. “It’s our first championship in five years and I’ve always kept challenging these guys to be champions and they showed what they had in the fourth quarter. We did what we did to win a championship… hopefully, we can get another one next week.”
The game was a dogfight through three quarters, with the Red Foxes mustering all they could to pull away in the fourth. Yet unlike the previous 28 games, this one was about so much more than two teams moving an orange sphere up the court.
“I’m so blessed to have been able to come here and play for a fan base that supports us so much,” said senior forward Alana Gilmer. “It was an incredible feeling to have our families here and play in one of the best atmospheres there is for a mid-major school.”
The most memorable moments were bookended around the most intense action. Pregame ceremonies honored the five seniors: Molly Smith, Grace Vander Weide, Alana Gilmer, and Hannah and Rebekah Hand. Each player received an outpouring of support from the crowd of almost 2,000 people, many of whom had filed in well before tip-off to pay one last tribute to a group that has now won 83 games in the red and white.
“I’ve never wanted a championship more than I have with this group,” said Giorgis. “I have had some incredibly great players and human beings but they take a seat to these guys. They have brought so much light to the program and have been great mentors for the younger players.”
With 59 seconds left and outcome no longer in doubt, head coach Brian Giorgis motioned to his bench and permanently removed his big three of Vander Weide, Gilmer, and Rebekah Hand. It was the most poignant moment of a night we will not soon forget. The players embraced one another, then Giorgis, then the rest of the bench, and acknowledged the crowd that stood to recognize their conquering heroes. Molly Smith and Hannah Hand got the same treatment. Hannah made two free throws before heading to the bench to share a moment with her twin sister.
“The emotions didn’t really hit us until the last time we checked out,” said Rebekah Hand. “It was a sweet feeling seeing all the fans and we’re thankful for their support.”
Marist, now 25-4 overall and 18-2 in the MAAC, had a three-way tie for the team lead in scoring (care to guess who they were?). Fittingly, Gilmer, Vander Weide, and Rebekah Hand each had 18 points. Willow Duffell was the fourth Red Fox in double-figures with 12. Hannah Hand and Smith also got into the action, scoring five and two points respectively.
Siena fell to 10-19, 8-12 in the MAAC. The Saints got a game-high 21 from senior Sabrina Piper. Julia Hauer added 13 in the defeat.
Trailing 16-10 after ten minutes, the Saints were able to fight back and tie the game at 29 with just over two minutes left in the first half. Marist countered with a quick 7-0 run capped by an Allie Best three-pointer. The Red Foxes took a 36-32 lead into the half.
Siena was repeatedly able to score inside against a porous Marist defense. A Hauer layup knotted the game at 42 just past the midway point in the third. The Saints would take a 47-44 lead on the back of five-of-five foul shooting from Piper and Hauer.
Later trailing 51-48, the Red Foxes needed a spark. Rebekah Hand not only provided a flicker but set off a full-blown powder keg. She drained a three for a tie and, thanks to a Smith layup, Marist found itself with a 55-54 lead heading into the last ten minutes.
Hand buried a three 17 seconds into the fourth for a 58-54 advantage. She struck again after two-and-a-half minutes and completed the trifecta of trifectas two possessions later. The Red Foxes then led 68-60. Gilmer would help extend the lead with two consecutive layups, capping a crucial 17-8 run.
“I was just taking open shots when I had them,” said Hand. “I was missing them in the first half but I knew I needed to keep shooting or else [coach] would get mad.”
The beleaguered Marist defense was able to clamp down and squash any hope of a Siena comeback, allowing the seniors to have a stress-free walk into the sunset.
The Red Foxes shot 29-of-57 from the field and nine-of-23 from beyond the arc. Marist improved their performance from the charity stripe after Thursday’s poor outing, going 14-of-18. They once again struggled with turnovers (15) but turned in 24 assists to counter.
The Saints shot 26-of-60 from the floor and five-of-16 from three. They outrebounded the Red Foxes 37-29 and won the paint battle 34-30.
Marist is locked into the second seed in the MAAC after Rider’s narrow win over Monmouth. They will play on Wednesday against the winner of the 7-10 game between Iona and Monmouth. Tip-off is scheduled for approximately 3:30 in Atlantic City.
Edited by Will Bjarnar
Header video from Jonathan Kinane