Every coach of every team will say the same thing: each game means the same.
But when Marist women’s basketball hosts Niagara on Saturday, there’s no disputing that the game will mean more.
Both for Marist’s Brian Giorgis, who is coaching his 278th and final game in the McCann Center, and for Jada Pierce, who served as an assistant under Giorgis for a season in Poughkeepsie.
Pierce was on the bench for the 2006-07 season, the year the Red Foxes made an improbable run to the Sweet 16 before finally bowing out to Candace Parker and top-seeded Tennessee after beating Ohio State and Middle Tennessee.
After several more stops as an assistant coach — two seasons at the University of Massachusetts, a season at Mount St. Mary’s, two more at Army (under former Marist men’s basketball head coach Dave Magarity), and three campaigns at Saint Joseph’s — Pierce got her breakthrough Division I head coaching job at Niagara in the spring of 2015.
Her eighth season at the helm in Buffalo has seen her earn a contract extension and guide her program to a 12-4 MAAC record and third place in the conference heading into the penultimate weekend of action.
With their fast-paced pressure defense forcing Marist into 34 turnovers in a game that the Red Foxes still managed to win back in December, the high-flying Purple Eagles aren’t going to be a walkover on Saturday afternoon.
This game didn’t end up on the calendar because of coincidence, Giorgis specifically requested to play Pierce in his swan song at McCann. To him, she’s still a part of the family.
“People asked me, ‘are you crazy?’ When I requested to play Niagara for the final home game,” Giorgis said. “But Jada was part of the Sweet 16 team and I wanted to play against someone from that era and she was excited to do it.”
Before she got to Marist ahead of the 2006-07 season, Pierce held the head job at Cheney University of Pennsylvania, which competed at the Division II level. Even though she had a program of her own, she knew it wasn’t “the fit” and wanted to get back to Division I even if it meant becoming an assistant again.
As fate would have it, she got in touch with former Marist associate head coach Megan Gebbia. It just so happened that there was an opening for one of the assistant positions.
“(Gebbia) and I talked on the phone and we just hit it off,” Pierce said. “This was a blind situation, I didn’t know anyone on the staff. But then she put (Giorgis) on the phone and we hit it off and he asked when I could come up for an interview.”
After the meeting, Pierce knew she had found the right fit. When Giorgis called to offer her the job, it was a no-brainer.
“I was more than ecstatic to say yes and be a part of it,” she said. “But I had to do my research because I knew Marist College but I didn’t know how good their women’s basketball program was at the time and I didn’t know who (Giorgis) was.”
What Pierce found in her research was a coach who notched a 451-44 record at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie and who was in the midst of building a small-conference dynasty at Marist.
The Red Foxes were coming off their second MAAC Championship in three seasons. The program’s NCAA Tournament appearance in 2005-06 would begin a streak of nine consecutive trips to the Big Dance.
While it takes time to adjust to new surroundings, Pierce already felt right at home before the season even started.
“It was a fun group to be around,” Pierce remembered. “They embraced me right away.”
Pierce recounted a funny story where she took an unfortunate tumble while refereeing a game at McCann as part of a summer camp.
“I was running, not paying attention to anything else but the game,” she said. “I stepped and I ran out of wood (the court was slightly elevated at the time) and ended up falling and rolling my ankle real bad.
“And I’m in the training room and the girls come in and were trying real hard not to laugh. They were like, ‘Coach, you just got here and you roll your ankle. What’s going on?’ They weren’t afraid to joke around with me and show their personalities.”
It seems silly looking back on it, but the coaching staff was not convinced that the team would defend its conference crown in 2006-07. Once the season started, there was very little to worry about.
Marist lost just five times in the regular season and two of those were to No. 6 Duke and No. 1 Maryland in the non-conference schedule.
For a while, the Red Foxes seemed like they would pull off a perfect MAAC regular season but in Pierce’s eyes was a “hiccup” against Loyola (Maryland) that set the stage for Marist’s Cinderella story.
“We weren’t happy about it,” Pierce said. “We didn’t play our best that game and we had to have some tough conversations with some folks after that. But I think we righted the ship and didn’t lose again until the Sweet 16.
In a season full of wins, it’s funny how the losses often stick with you the most.
Marist skated through the first two games of the MAAC Tournament before beating Iona in overtime to clinch the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Red Foxes earned the 13-seed in the Dayton Regional. Marist would travel to California to play 4-seed Ohio State in the opening round.
In an era when coaches were still looking at opposing film on compact disks, Pierce remembers making the trip to New Jersey with Erin Doughty, a newly-minted assistant at the time, to pick up a bunch of CDs that had footage of opposing teams.
As it turned out, Pierce would get the scouting responsibilities for Ohio State.
“I was pretty pumped that he had the confidence in me,” Pierce said. “When I popped it in, I saw that (Ohio State) was running an offense that I was really familiar with (the triangle offense). I told coach I was ready to go with putting in the scout whenever.”
What came next was a famous win for Marist. The game plan worked to perfection as the Red Foxes limited three-time Big Ten Player of the Year Jessica Davenport to 13 points and 11 turnovers through relentless double-teams.
Marist added another upset win over Middle Tennessee, but it was a memory following the win over the Buckeyes that still remains with Pierce today.
“(Giorgis) wanted them to enjoy that moment,” she said. “Not many coaches are like that. They immediately start worrying about the next game. He wanted to make sure everybody enjoyed that moment. We coaches were sitting together that night and we were there at the hotel restaurant just seeing the kids with their parents and everyone enjoying themselves.
“It was basically like stop and smell the roses… he wanted everyone to soak it in.”
For someone like Pierce, who has been on the bench at several schools, not every former institution feels like home. Even though she was in Poughkeepsie for just one season 15 years ago, Marist still has that feeling.
“It just feels like no time has passed and people want to give you hugs and love and all of that type of stuff,” she said. “Those are special things that don’t come often in your lifetime and I’ve been blessed to be able to be a part of, you know, the Red Fox family.”
On Saturday, Giorgis will get to soak in the environment around the court where he has won so many games one more time. His one-time assistant turned MAAC coaching adversary is honored to be there.
“I wasn’t there for long but the impact was huge, and we had an impact on each other’s lives as well as the young women that we got to coach that year,” Pierce said. “I think he said he shed a tear when he saw (the schedule) because he actually got the game… And it means a lot to me knowing that he wants me to be a part of that special day.”
Edited by Isabella Cicinelli and Christian De Block
Photo from Niagara Athletics