When the Marist women’s basketball team lost their Big Three after last year many thought they would enter a rebuilding phase, but thanks to the strong play and leadership of Willow Duffell, the team has stayed at the top of the MAAC.
Last season, the Marist women’s basketball team went 26-4 en route to being named MAAC co-champions. However, the story entering this year for the Red Foxes was about rebuilding, due to the loss of their Big Three of Rebekah Hand, Alana Gilmer and Grace Vander Weide. Head coach Brian Giorgis has not let that get in the way, as his squad has jumped out to a 14-2 record to start the season. Now, despite the losses to graduation and all the difficulty and confusion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Marist remains a big competitor, sitting in first place in the conference.
This could not have been done without the help of senior forward Willow Duffell, who along with senior guard Allie Best has served as the leader for this young team both on and off the court, as the only seniors in the starting lineup.
“We’ve definitely taken underclassmen under our wing that are in our positions on the floor,” said Duffell. But it is not just her work as a leader that has impressed this season, it is also her work individually on the court. Duffell has posted career highs in points per game with 11.8, good for second on the team, rebounds per game with a team leading 8.6, and minutes per game with 32.4, while starting all 16 games thus far. She has also added four double-doubles and is averaging 2.6 offensive rebounds per game.
“Taking that leadership role and gaining more confidence I think has really been the biggest impact on my personal game,” said Duffell. Her role on the team is so crucial as she is a key member of the team on the court statistically, she is a leader on the team with her basketball IQ and she helps mentor the younger players.
“It’s invaluable for our other post players to play with Willow this year, because she’s one of the best posts in the MAAC,” said assistant coach Brittany Parker. The coaching staff and the team have immense trust in Duffell as she has a knack for showing up in the clutch, in addition to being a team leader. She does not shy away from tough competition, which is why the team looks her direction in tight situations and late in games.
“If we need something, she’ll get it done,” Parker said. She has been consistent with baskets and rebounds when the team needs them in close end-game situations or when the team is in need of a momentum shift, and that’s one of the many reasons she means so much to this team.
The Red Foxes have no interest in discussing the Big Three of last year. They are focused on the group they have in the locker room this season. “It’s a new team so we can’t focus on what we lost, but more on what we can gain out of the new players coming in,” Duffell said.
However, it is impossible to completely ignore the players they’ve lost, and the team just acknowledges that they play a much different style this year than they did last year. It’s just as effective in winning games, just in a different way. “While scoring was really great last year, this is more of a defensive-minded team, where we’re able to pick up the slack of not being able to score as much as last year, by stopping our opponents more this year,” Duffell said.
Having a senior like Duffell down low in the post has helped the team significantly on the defensive end, as has the defensive approach the coaching staff has instilled in the younger players. Duffell is second on the team in blocks, with 10, second only to freshman Caitlin Weimar, who has 26. Weimar is one of the forwards Duffell has taken under her wing this season, and the defensive impact Weimar has made has clearly been a huge indicator of the team’s success. Both Duffell and Weimar are also the only two forwards on the team averaging at least one steal per game, and are the team’s top two defensive rebounders. Their impact on the defensive glass has been immense as well, tying the Red Foxes with Quinnipiac for the most defensive rebounds per game in the MAAC, with 26.
Obviously, winning games as one of the highest-scoring teams is the flashy way to win, however, this team has discovered that unlike last year’s team, that is not their strong suit. Rather, they have discovered that they can be just as successful by focusing on a defensive approach, allowing the least points per game in the MAAC. “We definitely have unfinished business, and I think that we have something to prove this year too, just by saying with the Big Three gone, I think that we’ve really made a statement,” said Duffell.
It’s not just the impact on the court that Duffell has made an impact. Duffell and Best are “basically like an extension of the coaching staff,” said Parker. Having that kind of presence available off the bench is extremely helpful for the coaching staff, as Duffell often picks up on things the coaches do not and informs the team about those things, making her equally valuable to the team even when she is not on the court, and in practice.
Clearly, not only has Duffell established herself as one of the premier players in the MAAC, but also, she has become one of the glue players for this young Marist team, leading by example on and off the court and showing up in the clutch whenever the team needs her. This Red Foxes team has overcome the loss of their top three players from last season, and now has its eyes on winning the MAAC Championship. Duffell will likely play a key role in their late season run and she hopes to help deliver a championship to Marist in her final season with the team.
Edited by Bridget Reilly
Photo Credit: Michael Cahill