Four months ago, Marist opened their season with an 89-75 win at Boston University. It seems like the last 28 games have gone by in a complete blur. A single blink of an eye and you might have missed a season where it seemed like the Red Foxes were breaking records every time they stepped on the court.
Now we have reached March, the month that makes college basketball. It’s a time of Cinderella runs and heart-wrenching defeats; a thin line separates joy and agony. In Atlantic City, only one team will emerge as joyous victors, 10 others will go home in despair. Here are three things to watch in the 2020 MAAC Tournament.
Both Rider and Marist won their games on Saturday to clinch a share of the MAAC regular-season title. The Broncs let their late lead at Monmouth slip away before Amari Johnson converted on a lob with just half a second left to give her team a 50-49 victory. Marist was tested against Siena before pulling away in the fourth and coming away with an 81-69 win. Both teams sit at 25-4 overall and 18-2 in the MAAC. Each having won close games on the other team’s floor in the season series. Rider’s 76-72 overtime triumph in Poughkeepsie may have been the best game in the league this season. With identical resumes, the tiebreaker could only be determined by comparing each team’s performances against the next highest finisher in the conference. Fairfield, Manhattan, and Quinnipiac all tied for third, but the battle for the 1-seed came down to Fairfield, who Marist lost to back in January (they have not lost since).
Both teams have senior-laden cores. The Broncs, of course, have the incandescent Stella Johnson who leads the country with 24.4 points per game. This will also be the last ride for Amari Johnson and Lea Favre — crucial role players for coach Lynn Milligan — both of whom burned the Red Foxes in the first meeting, but were held in check in Marist’s return trip to Rider. Marist counters with their big three of Rebekah Hand, Alana Gilmer, and Grace Vander Weide, all seniors, who desperately want to punch their ticket to the big dance. Both squads have had outstanding regular-seasons, leading up to what seems like a collision course for Marist-Rider III in Atlantic City.
The Rest of the Pack
If you thought it was funny that Marist and Rider had identical records, you will find this next part even more hilarious. Fairfield, Manhattan, and Quinnipiac all sit at 15-14 overall and 12-8 in the MAAC. They are seeded 3,4, and 5 respectively. No other team has a winning league record. Iona and Siena each sit at 8-12 and are followed by Niagara, Saint Peter’s, Monmouth, and Canisius, in that order. Saint Peter’s, the 9 seed, is a team to watch in the early rounds. If they get past Niagara in the first round, it would set up a matchup with Rider, who they defeated at home in February. The 12-8 teams could all be considered dark horses, but do they have enough firepower to take down the top two seeds?
Three-time defending champion, Quinnipiac has struggled after losing most of their production from last year. The Bobcats have failed to earn a marquee conference win and lacked consistency on defense. Fairfield defeated Marist 52-48 in the friendly confines of Alumni Hall. The Stags were soundly defeated 75-45 in Poughkeepsie. A repeat upset of the Red Foxes in the semi-finals would surely be done with defense.
Manhattan is another team that hangs its hat on the defensive side of the ball with Courtney Warley anchoring the middle. The Jaspers have mostly won the games they were supposed to win, and have only compiled a 2-6 record against the other teams with winning records in the MAAC. They came close in home meetings against Rider and Marist, losing each game by five points. They are my dark horse and will be a tough out for whoever they face.
Players to Watch
Stella Johnson and the Marist big three aside, there are still plenty of quality players to look out for in Atlantic City. Jai Moore (16.3 PPG) of Niagara, and Lou Lopez-Senechal (15.4 PPG) from Fairfield rank fourth and fifth in the league in scoring and both have had great outings against Marist. Manhattan is buoyed by the aforementioned Warley (11.6 PPG and 8.7 RPG) and freshman guard Emily LaPointe (12.5 PPG). Rider’s Amari Johnson is the only player in the MAAC that averages a double-double (11.4 PPG and 10.8 RPG). Lea Favre and Amanda Mobley are also key contributors for the Broncs. Quinnipiac is led by the ironically diminutive, but tough point guard Shaq Edwards (12.5 PPG and 3.6 APG). Any of these players could help their team make a deep run in the conference tournament or will some under-the-radar player make a name for herself and her team.
If you have ever seen me fill out a bracket, you know that I hate to go chalk but I can’t do it. I can’t pick any early-round upsets. I think that Manhattan should give Rider a game in the semis but comes up short in the end. Marist should have enough to get by Fairfield to set up the game we’ve all been waiting for. In the conference championship game, Brian Giorgis’ team can get it done and the Red Foxes can win a classic to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine
Header Image by Mike Cahill