The Semis of the “What Was the Greatest Marist Women’s Basketball Team of All-Time” Tournament: A Fan Favorite Falls

“The ball is tipped and there you are…” 

The past two rounds of our little tournament have really put me in the spirit. A certain theme song of March Madness has ingrained itself in my head.

“You’re running for your life, you’re a shooting star…”

Okay. Enough with that. Get to the writing.

There is no doubt that we will have a terrific highlight package once these games are over. For now, four teams remain. Three of these squads won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament and we’ve already established that the fourth has just as much talent.

The ratings are in. America is captivated. People who have never heard of tiny Marist College are now ardent supporters of their women’s basketball teams. There are bracket pools taking place all over the country. It probably isn’t appropriate, but I entered a few myself. I need the money.

There are two burning questions as we prepare for the final four: will the ’06-07 team continue their march to the title? And, will the ’19-20 squad continue their run against an absolutely stacked ’07-08 team?

These two games promise to be the most captivating of the tournament to this point. Get ready to ride the emotional rollercoaster that is sure to follow.

No. 2 2007-08 (32-3, Round of 32) vs. No. 11 2019-20 (26-4, ?)

Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

Jonathan Kinane: New York fans are thrilled to finally see some quality basketball return to The Mecca. The NYC area has no shortage of Marist alumni and the arena is buzzing well before tip-off. Marist’s most famous alumnus, Bill O’Reilly is even there, but once he is shown on the jumbotron, he is given a jeer that rivals anything Reggie Miller ever got at the garden. On a lighter note, Spike Lee is also in attendance and has shed his Knicks garb for a Rebekah Hand jersey.

Once the game gets underway, it is clear that only one team has their A-game. The ’19-20 group cannot do anything right. They miss open shots, turn the ball over, and are a step slower than usual on defense. Their big three is seemingly outclassed by the outstanding trio of Rachele Fitz, Julianne Viani, and Erica Allenspach. It seems like the pressure of the big stage has caught up to this year’s team.

The ’07-08 squad has not gotten out to the best of starts in their first two games of the tournament. They finally put that trend to an end. Fitz, the program’s all-time leading scorer, outpaces the entire ’19-20 team in the first half. Contributions from Allenspach, Viani, and Nikki Flores saw the lead stretch to 24 points in the first half. Allie Best comes off the bench to score 10 points, the rest of her team can only muster six. Unbelievably, the ’07-08 team takes a 40-16 lead into the locker room.

The Brian Giorgis who finds his team down 24 points must make an epic halftime speech. He does. It would not be appropriate for me to tell you what was said but there were a multitude of four-letter words. Take your favorite inspirational speech and multiply it by twenty-two. That is how good it was. 

A few years ago, on the men’s side, Texas A&M completed a 12-point comeback against Northern Iowa in about 30 seconds. They would win the game in double overtime.

Marist faces a deficit twice as large, but they also have about 40 times as long to complete their comeback. I think they can do it.

At first, the going is slow. Behind Grace Vander Weide, who has taken a bit of a backseat in the last two games, the offense starts to click. Within the first three minutes of the half, she has made assists to each of her teammates and then hits a three, which gets her team’s bench back into it from the sideline. As the fourth quarter begins, the lead has been cut in two. It’s 49-37 but feels much closer than that. Fitz is on her own for the time being. Much like their strategy against Rider, the ’19-20 team is determined to take away the secondary options and force the opposition’s best player to do it all herself.

The lead continues to shrink. A Gilmer three-point play cuts it to single digits. Each of the Hand twins hit threes. Vander Weide has compiled 12 assists in just over 12 minutes. Rachele Fitz is not easy to stop though, she makes enough tough shots to keep her team in front and tries desperately to get her teammates involved.

Up by four with 90 seconds left, she draws a double team and dishes down to Flores for an easy layup. This year’s Brian Giorgis spends his last timeout. His team trails 66-60. They are no strangers to facing a late deficit, they’ve known nothing else this tournament.

It’s no surprise when Rebekah Hand hits a three and then comes up with a steal on the next possession. The subsequent trip down the floor results in a Gilmer layup. 66-65 with 40 seconds left.

The ’19-20 team elects to play things out on defense. They swarm around for 25 seconds, finally gambling and doubling Fitz as she looks sure to shoot. But it’s a jump pass, straight to Meg Dahlman who puts it in with ease. 68-65. 12 seconds left.

I always favor fouling when up 3 late in the game but ’07-08 Brian Giorgis knows that the fans don’t want to see that.

The ball ends up with the second-leading scorer in Marist history. With four seconds left, Rebekah Hand has to act. She gets a relatively clean look and boy does it look good.

It’s not to be.

The shot is a fraction too long and the hopes of an improbable run to the final are dashed. The teams embrace at mid-court. One team won, the other lost, but respect has been gained on both sides. It’s not a happy end to the careers of the Hands, Gilmer, Vander Weide, and Molly Smith, but it is satisfying to know they gave it their all.

Each of the big three record double-doubles in their final games. Fitz leads the way for her squad, finishing with 24 points and eight assists. Fitting.

The winningest Marist team of all-time advances to the championship.

No. 1 2006-07 (29-6, Sweet 16) vs. No. 5 2011-12 (26-8, Round of 32)

Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

Will Bjarnar: A game of this magnitude and importance requires an arena to match. The ’07-08 team was blessed enough to draw the Carrier Dome as their neutral site in round two; we’ll call this draw a makeup call for the arena selection committee’s egregious decision-making thus far. And by committee, I mean me. Not Jonathan, as he was obviously generous. Though maybe a bit too generous…? Okay, enough, this is not our fight. That comes in the next round, when we’ll spar to decide a champion. Let’s figure out who’s going to make it there.

You know the teams by now. Not only have you read through our previous rounds, but you have a handy dandy header at the top of this blurb as an indicator. So no need for introductions. However, there is a need for such festivities on the court in advance of a tip-off. And you know what that means.

Intimidation, folks. Works every time.

Or does it? Immediately following the introductions, a lit video, and a tip-off, the once Sweet-16ers storm ahead, riding a 12-0 run after the ’11-12’s first bucket to take a 12-2 into the first media timeout. ’11-12 Giorgis? Furious. Alisa Kresge is driving and kicking on what seems to be every trip; not even through the first quarter, she’s tallied three assists, two of them coming to an open Julianne Viani for back-to-back triples. Rough start. A lot of game left.

Kristina Danella finds her stroke after a lone clang, draining three triples in the first half on her way to a half-high 13 points. The post battle is an interesting one to follow throughout the first, too. Typically, considering her track record, I’d expect Dahlman to dominate. But there’s a first time for everything. Brandy Gang scores eight on four-of-five shooting to go with two blocks in the half. Despite the slow start to a better team – something I think all 17,865 attendees tonight, including Jay-Z, can agree on – the score is close through one. They only trail 36-30, with Rachele Fitz pacing the ’06-07 squad with 10. Corielle Yarde only took three shots, missing two. That can’t continue, right?

Right! Yarde explodes out of the gate, quickly nailing her first two mid-range jumpers in the second half to bring the game even at 40. After a back and forth third quarter, it’s near a dead heat, 58-57 as the fourth begins. Fitz has continued to pace the ’06-07 squad, but with considerable help from Dahlman, who led all third quarter-scorers and rebounders with seven and four, respectively.

And then came the fourth.

I don’t know what happened in the ’06-07 huddle in between quarters. I don’t know if Giorgis reminded his team what Tennessee did to them back in the day to light a fire under them. I don’t know if he brought up dining hall food being advertised as “gourmet.” I don’t know if he reminded them that Happy Feet beat Cars for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar back in their native year. All egregious.

Whatever he said, it worked, because the punch they delivered was unlike any Muhammad Ali ever threw. A 14-0 run to start the quarter pushed their lead to 15, and though the ’11-12 team would attempt to respond, their meager stretch of three straight buckets pales in comparison to the 23-point quarter Marist drops like an anvil out of Looney Tunes. Fitz goes for 25; Dahlman adds 14 and eight; Kresge has 10 and 10 in points and assists; Viani doesn’t miss from three, finishing the game with 12 points. The unstoppable ’06-07 crew looked stoppable for but a moment; I guess that’s what happens when you take your foot off the gas ever so slightly. 81-65, final. To the ‘ship.

If any consolation, Yarde finishes with 16 and is bound to get an All-Tournament nod. We’ll round out the rest of that team tomorrow; we’ll also crown a champion.

It’s on, JK.

Edited by Bridget Reilly

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