Congratulations! You’ve made it to the second round, or the Elite Eight, depending on how you look at it. We have now reached the time where the favorites must take care of business on the road to the finals and where our upset victors must defy the odds for the second straight time. Gone is the friendly atmosphere that surrounded the first round. That has been replaced by a palpable tension in the arenas that are playing host to our slate of games.
After these games have been played, four teams will remain. The storylines journalists love to write about will have been established by the end of the night. There is no shortage of great matchups. Seven of the eight teams have NCAA Tournament experience. The eighth looked sure to join the others if it was not for…well I’d prefer not to talk about it. Most of these contests look like coin-flips. The question we all want to know: who will prevail?
Welcome to round two folks, settle in and enjoy. Will and I are back to take you through these pivotal matchups.
Be sure to check out the first round if you haven’t already!
No. 1 2006-07 (29-6, Sweet 16) vs. No. 8 2013-14 (27-7, Round of 64)
Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
Will Bjarnar: I foresee difficulty for any team that runs into the ’06-07 squad.
Think about it, but not too hard, because this shouldn’t cause a strain. What we’re faced with here in terms of matchup is once again the most successful group of players to ever grace the court for the Marist women’s basketball program, and a team that while successful, lost by 22 to Iowa in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In this hypothetical land Jonathan and I have dreamed up – where a younger Giorgis can stand across from a slightly older Giorgis, performing a real-life rendition of the Spider-Man meme – I see the ’06-07 team contending in a matchup with the Hawkeyes. If ’13-14 couldn’t hang around then, who’s to say they will now?
But this game has a caveat we must explore, a wrinkle in its makeup that might just cause a shocking shakeup should it be executed correctly.
In the first round, the ’06-07 team dispatched of the lowly ’89-90 team like a used tissue; no skin off their back, very little off of mine as a writer conjuring up these scenarios. Do we remember who ’13-14 had the pleasure of playing in the first round? No? Why, it was just about the same team they are playing in the second round, just one year younger. I’ll be right back; I need to grab my popcorn.
I am curious, though: who would we say has the advantage here? We’re basically faced with a situation in which both teams know how the other plays. The major difference is that the ’06-07 team is now a year older and a player stronger; not just any player either. In this game’s first half, it’s the ’13-14 squad that maintains a wire-to-wire lead, though not a large one (it’s only 32-30 at the half), and certainly not a sustainable one should the best player on the other roster get hot. And Rachele Fitz – the player so mysteriously alluded to in the last few sentences – does just that, dicing the defense with her mid-range, punishing Tori Jarosz with her post-prowess. She finishes the night with a dazzling 28 points – talk about big players showing up on the biggest stage – and propels her team to an eight-point 68-60 victory, staving off a threat from an older, experienced roster collapsing during what would be their last run as a full group.
The ’13-14 team watched plenty of film of the ’05-06 matchup; I guess they should’ve paid a bit more attention to the team they hadn’t played yet.
No. 2 2007-08 (32-3, Round of 32) vs. No. 10 2003-04 (20-11, Round of 64)
Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY
Jonathan Kinane: We have expanded from the tinderbox gyms of the first round to the cavernous Carrier Dome in upstate New York. Is it a coincidence that I just happen to live 10 minutes away from the Dome? I think not, but canvassing the northeast in search of the greatest Marist women’s team of all-time is tiring work. The more important story is the homecoming of both versions of Brian Giorgis, who attended high school in nearby Cicero. A record 36,000, mostly red-and-white clad fans pack the Carrier Dome to see how the top winning Marist team of all-time fares against the upstart 10-seed. There were some confused Syracuse fans who had to be told their team is not playing. A small riot ensues, ensuring an energized atmosphere before tip-off.
Once we’re underway, it is clear the ’07-08 team is not going to give another flat first half performance, Brian Giorgis makes sure of that. In fact, the team could be spotted running up and down Route 9 before they departed for the game. Rachelle Fitz does not have to put the team on her shoulders this time around, as Julianne Viani and Erica Allenspach have no problem draining long-range shots.
On the other side, Stephanie Del Preore, who had arguably the best performance of the tournament in her team’s first-round win, is tasked with putting her squad on her back. We’ve seen great individual tournament runs before but Del Preore is simply not allowed many opportunities. Only by slowing the game down does the ’03-04 team stay competitive. The scoreboard reads 33-27 in favor of the 2-seed at halftime.
The ’07-08 squad keeps going about their business as the second half begins. A defensive adjustment sees Fitz help Meg Dahlman on Del Preore whenever she gets the ball in the post. This forces the surrounding cast to take and make the open shots they are given. At first, it looks like the strategy might backfire. Nina Vecchio nails two consecutive threes to tie the game at 33. The tempo has picked up and this favors the favorites. The ’07-08 team gets scoring from nine different players but Allenspach is the standout. She misses her first shot of the second half but then begins to percolate. She would hit her next eight shots and be part of an integral 17-4 run in the early second half.
The ’03-04 team ends up settling for 18 three-point attempts in the second half alone, making only five. Del Preore is bottled up and sees her team’s run come to an end. The ’07-08 team moves on with a 74-56 victory. You couldn’t tell if you looked at their head coach. Giorgis makes his team run the steps of the nosebleeds in the Dome before saying, “Let’s get out of here, I remember why I moved away from this place.”
No. 4 2008-09 (29-4, Round of 64) vs. No. 5 2011-12 (26-8, Round of 32)
Christl Arena, West Point, NY
WB: While I raved and rambled on about the ’06-07 team being the clear best in this tournament just moments ago, I think a real case for an upset bid could be made for either of these teams. Yes, they’re currently pitted against one another, so one will have to go, but both have genuine promise that I’m sure will lead to an electrifying showdown here. And, excitingly, we have yet another interesting caveat here: the ’08-09 team features the stars of the ’11-12 squad when they were freshmen. I don’t know if there’s ever been a more full-circle moment than this one here, in this prestigious tournament that was made up and could never actually happen.
I need to stop saying that. Who knows, we might actually be fooling some of you.
Regardless, the game is a fascinating test for the ’11-12 seniors Corielle Yarde, Brandy Gang, Kristine Best, and Emily Stallings. No one likes being the young, overlooked players on a team. And I’m not saying that’s what happened to these four when they were freshman in ’08-09 – I can’t imagine that being Giorgis’ approach to fostering growth inside his program – but this is essentially the group’s chance to come back and face their demons.
It’s a battle of the stars from the tip – Yarde struggles early with Viani covering, though she eventually finds her groove, scoring nine in the first half, while Fitz has her way with Brandy Gang scoring 13. It’s knotted up at halftime, 29-29. Remember, this ’08-09 team was one of the best defensive rosters fielded in this tournament. This game could get ugly.
And it does, unsurprisingly, but not in their favor, surprisingly. Corielle Yarde didn’t win the MAAC Player of the Year to have that be her only honor; she explodes for 18 more in the second half – that’s 27 total for you math fiends out there – leaving her younger self at a loss. “That’s what I’m gonna become?” she wonders aloud. Giorgis, meanwhile, is conflicted. His ’08-09 squad has blown a tight game (the final is 70-59 in favor of his ’11-12 team), sure, but this is what’s coming down the line? He knew he was a good recruiter, but this is something else.
On her way to the locker room, Corielle Yarde walks past her younger self. She nods, as if to say, “Soon…”
No. 3 2010-11 (31-3, Round of 32) vs. No. 11 2019-20 (26-4, ?)
Matthews Arena, Boston, MA
JK: I don’t care what Will said about the game before, this is the best game of the night. With tip-off scheduled for 9:30, this one promises to go late into the night. The ’10-11 team is full of names you’ve already seen: Yarde, Gang, and Allenspach just to name a few. The ’19-20 group is led by its big three of Rebekah Hand, Grace Vander Weide, and Alana Gilmer, who is just minutes away from her hometown of North Easton, MA. Both teams can shoot the three, both teams pass the ball, both teams play defense, both teams have depth, and both teams make their foul shots.
When this one does get underway, it’s no shocker that there is very little separation between these squads. The lead changes hands 15 times in the first 20 minutes. One thing is clear: this is going to be a shootout. The teams hit eight three-pointers apiece in the first half. Sarah Barcello does not miss on four attempts and her ’10-11 counterpart Leanne Ockenden does her one better, going a perfect five-for-five. Ockenden’s team has a slim 47-45 lead entering the second half.
Alana Gilmer felt the nerves that come with playing in front of so many family and friends in an already high-pressure situation. She has five points at the break but is just one-of-six from the free-throw line, a place where she struggled her senior year. She finds her groove as the second half begins, arching a mid-range jumper over Corielle Yarde and into the hoop on the first possession. She establishes herself down low and scores easily off a few backdoor cuts. As the ’19-20 team grabs the lead, a duel breaks out between Rebekah Hand and Corielle Yarde, arguably two of the top three players to wear a Marist uniform.
It’s like a game of H-O-R-S-E you would actually watch on television. The degree of difficulty keeps increasing but the shots keep falling. With a minute left, it looks like Yarde will claim victory, she has 27 points and her team is nursing an 86-82 lead.
The next possession for the ’19-20 team looks like it is going nowhere. 25 seconds into the shot clock and nothing has happened. In a panic, Grace Vander Weide feeds it to Willow Duffell on the perimeter. She is open for a reason but she has to shoot it. The ball doesn’t hit anything. But the bottom of the net (gotcha there, didn’t I?). 86-85 with 20 seconds left. 12 more precious seconds run off the clock before Yarde is sent to the line. She drains the first. “The 2010-11 team is a perfect 20 for 20 at the line tonight,” says Geoff Brualt. Why would you say that, Geoff? The announcer’s jinx is too powerful even for a great like Yarde. The ’19-20 team gets the rebound and calls its final timeout.
The ball goes into Hand. She’s swarmed by two defenders; her only option this time is Gilmer. Alana gets the ball. Can she make another miracle happen? No. Not yet, at least. As she is shooting her arm is whacked by an over-eager defender. Three shots from the charity stripe. Her team trails by two. Gilmer is now two-of-eight at the line on the night. Nerves jangling, she steps up, as the gym goes eerily quiet. The first effort hits the front of the rim, then the backboard before falling. The second one gets back iron before dropping in. Tie game.
Now, at the very worst there will be overtime but Gilmer doesn’t feel like playing any extra basketball tonight. The third and final free throw is one she’ll call, “one of the best shots of my career,” when it falls, her team leads 88-87 with one second left.
One last gasp for the ’10-11 squad. On a play reminiscent of the Grant Hill to Christian Laettner connection in the 1992 Final Four, Brandy Gang sends a full-court pass to Yarde. She turns and fires but the shot clangs off the rim.
The celebration from the victors is not one of a Cinderella story who has just pulled off another improbable upset. Instead, it fit the mold of one from a team who fully expected to be there. The motto that could be heard from the players was “Two down, two to go.”
So there you have it, the final four is set. The top two seeds have been impressive and the Cinderella run from the ’19-20 team has been exciting to watch. Who will be the two to face off in the final big dance?
Edited by Bridget Reilly