At long last, March is finally here. The third month of the year brings the beginning of spring, Saint Patrick’s Day, and, most importantly, a few weeks of really exciting basketball.
Now, it is time for Marist women’s basketball to make the three-hour trek to Atlantic City to battle for the MAAC’s lone bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The conference standings look a bit different from past years with Iona, Niagara, and Siena occupying three of the top four spots. Quinnipiac is the lone traditional power in the top four, while other perennials like Fairfield and Marist find themselves as onlookers in the regular-season title race.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the Red Foxes, who have shown some flashes of improvement from 2021-22 but are enduring a dip in form to end the season.
The final week of regular season play sums up 2022-23 quite well for Marist. A tremendous win at Iona was followed up with a loss at tenth-place Rider.
But the reality is that the 20 MAAC games just served as the preamble to the chaos that is sure to ensue in Atlantic City. Now, we’re into survive and advance mode. One poor game can spoil a great season, one magical run can define it.
Let’s take a look at the contenders, pretenders, and everyone in between in Atlantic City.
Recent history says one of the top seeds will take the MAAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The league’s top three teams all have a shot to cut down the nets in New Jersey.
Iona (23-6, 18-2 in the MAAC)
First game: vs winner of Mount St. Mary’s-Canisius, Wednesday 1 p.m.
There’s no doubt that the Gaels have been the surprise of the MAAC season. Not only are they leading the conference, but Billi Chambers’ squad already has the top seed in Atlantic City wrapped up thanks to a ridiculous 16-game winning streak that Marist snapped on Mar. 2. Prior to that, Iona hadn’t lost since its second conference game of the season, a 49-43 decision to Fairfield on Dec. 19.
Everyone knew about dynamic point guard Juana Camilion coming into the season, and she has earned her All-MAAC credentials, putting up 15 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. But this season, she has help in the form of Kate Mager, who averages 12 per game and is the best three-point shooter in the league at a whopping 50 percent. There’s also Ketsia Athias, the team’s dependable post player who leads the team in assists and also averages in double-figures.
While Mager takes and makes a lot of Iona’s threes, the Gaels are the best long-distance shooting team in the MAAC by an incredible margin. Iona shoots 41 percent as a team, good for second in the entire country. Siena is next best at 32 percent.
The Gaels have scored over 90 twice this year and put on a memorable second-half barrage at Marist that turned a close game into a blowout. Iona doesn’t have the pedigree of the team below them, but its body of work in the regular season should have the Gaels heading into the conference tournament as the favorite.
Quinnipiac (21-8, 16-4 in the MAAC)
First game: vs winner of Manhattan-St. Peter’s, Thursday 1 p.m.
It was a shaky start in MAAC play for Tricia Fabbri’s Bobcats, but Quinnipiac is peaking at the right time heading into March.
On Jan. 14, the Bobcats lost at Iona and sat at 4-3 in conference play. In the time since something clicked as Quinnipiac reeled off 10 consecutive wins (including two over Marist) and got itself out of the middle of the league. The streak came to an end in a game against Niagara but the Bobcats are still the hottest team in the league not named Iona.
The return of Swiss Army knife Mackenzie DeWees has established the Bobcats as a true threat in Atlantic City. The team is as balanced as any in the league with Cur’Tiera Haywood, Mikala Morris, and Jackie Grisdale all averaging around 10 points per game.
Throw in a great shot-blocker in Mary Baskerville as part of a deep bench and Quinnipiac has a very realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.
Niagara (17-11, 16-4 in the MAAC)
First game: vs winner of Marist-Rider, Wednesday 3:30 p.m.
Jada Pierce’s Purple Eagles have been trending up for the last couple of seasons, and it is nice to see them playing so well in the MAAC. Niagara’s fast-paced, pressing style of play could create havoc in a tournament atmosphere where teams don’t have much time to prepare.
Marist committed 34 turnovers in Buffalo but still found a way to spring what now seems like an upset of the Purple Eagles back in December. Niagara makes the game scrappy and ugly at times, but you can tell there’s a real identity there that some teams below it clearly lack.
The Parker sisters are the top two scorers in the MAAC and the team’s real offensive firepower. Aaliyah Parker has taken the mantle as the team’s top-scorer (17.5 points per game) from older sister Angel, who still isn’t doing too bad herself at 16 per contest. The knocks on the Purple Eagles are that there hasn’t been a consistent third-scorer and that they shoot just 27 percent from three.
When you’re forcing teams into almost 30 turnovers per game, these problems can be navigated. Keep a close eye on this team in Atlantic City.
The Dark Horses
One of these teams will eliminate the other, so it makes sense to group them together. Whoever advances past the quarterfinals will have a tough task, with the winner likely playing Iona.
Siena (18-12, 12-8 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Fairfield, Thursday 3:30 p.m.
Siena has the top-scoring offense in the MAAC at about 69 points per game. Like Iona, the Saints have eclipsed 90 points twice in conference play, most recently against Rider in late January.
The scary thing is that this is a pretty young team. Siena was picked in a tie for ninth in the preseason poll, proving how useless those really are. Jim Jabir’s squad has five players scoring between 9 and 11 points per game and a litany of capable outside shooters. This team has the balance to knock off an Iona or Quinnipiac in Atlantic City. Expect the Saints to be in this position for the next few years.
Fairfield (15-14, 11-9 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Siena, Thursday 3:30 p.m.
It was going to take some time to adjust to losing Lou Lopez-Senechal (who now averages 16 points per game at a little school called UConn) but the Stags have done pretty well in Carly Thibault-DuDonis’ first season at the helm.
The Stags are a defensively sound team with veteran leadership like Janelle Brown, Andrea Hernangomez, and Callie Cavanaugh anchoring the team on both ends of the floor. Poughkeepsie native Kate Peek is also someone to keep an eye on. The sharpshooter has come on strong toward the end of the season and could give the team a boost in the tournament.
Fairfield isn’t quite as dynamic as years past but it will still be a very tough out.
Hey, Crazier Things Have Happened
These two teams struggled for consistency in the regular season, but they have the pieces to potentially go on a run in Atlantic City.
Manhattan (13-16, 10-10 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Saint Peter’s, Tuesday 2:30 p.m.
The Jaspers have been about average this season. Their highs haven’t been too high and their lows haven’t been too low. They made the MAAC Championship game last season but it’s been a tougher road in 2022-23.
Dee Dee Davis is the team’s leading scorer at about 16 points per game this season but she’s shooting just 35 percent. The Jaspers are the second-worst shooting team in the league but have been buoyed by their defense, a staple under Heather Vulin.
It’s a stretch to say that Manhattan could win it all in Atlantic City, but if any team was going to come from outside the top five, the Jaspers are the favorites.
Marist (12-17, 8-12 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Rider, Tuesday 12:30 p.m.
The Red Foxes were trending toward the tier below until a shock win at Iona last week, even if they did follow that up with a frustrating loss at Rider.
Losing Maeve Donnelly for the season was a tough blow for the Red Foxes, especially on the defensive end. But Marist was lucky that a mid-season injury to Kendall Krick wasn’t as bad. Even with their top three contributors in the lineup, it’s been another frustrating season for the Red Foxes.
Zaria Shazer and Kiara Fisher have both been terrific, but after Krick, the production simply isn’t there. Brian Giorgis elected to inject some youth into the starting lineup, opting for Morgan Tompkins and Catie Cunningham over Julianna Bonilla and Sam Bailey. It paid dividends in the win over the Gaels, but the fear is that the Red Foxes just aren’t that deep.
Still, there might be enough magic left in Giorgis’ final run if the team can successfully lean Shazer and Fisher and get something out of the role players down the stretch.
Happy to Win a Game
These teams can all advance out of the first round, but anything after that would be a real surprise.
Mount St. Mary’s (11-18, 7-13 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Canisius, Tuesday 10:30 a.m.
In its inaugural MAAC campaign, the Mount has held serve, for the most part, at home but struggled on the road. The end of the season hasn’t been kind to Mount St. Mary’s, which is currently on a four-game losing streak with the Buffalo swing still to come.
Antoine White’s squad did manage to sweep Siena in the regular season but aside from that, most of its success has come against teams in the lower rung of the conference. The Mount gets good production from its starting five but like Marist, it struggles to get any meaningful contributions from the bench.
Michaela Harrison, Jessica Tomasetti, and Natalie Villaflor all score in double-figures, but the team doesn’t have the depth for an extended run.
Rider (9-20, 6-14 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Marist, Tuesday 12:30 p.m.
Unfortunately for the Broncs, returning a lot of experience doesn’t necessarily equate to winning more games. Rider only has three league wins against teams not named St. Peter’s and has the second-worst defensive record in the MAAC.
Makayla Firebaugh, Raphaela Toussaint, and Victoria Toomey are all familiar names but some injury troubles have limited Lynn Milligan’s options off the bench. In an overtime win against Mount St. Mary’s on Feb. 23, three players spent 40 minutes or more on the court. That is not sustainable for a MAAC Tournament run.
Canisius (9-20, 6-14 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Mount St. Mary’s, Tuesday 10:30 a.m.
You have to respect what Sahar Nusseibeh is doing in Buffalo. The Griffins showed signs of improvement late last season and have become a bit more competitive in 2022-23.
The Griffins swept Marist in the regular season and earned a solid win at home over Fairfield on Feb. 17. Still, a rebuild doesn’t happen overnight. Heavy defeats to the likes of Iona and Quinnipiac show that there is still a sizable gap between Canisius and the top teams in the league. There is definitely a chance that the Griffins repeat what they did last season and get past the first round, but anything after that would be quite the surprise.
Thanks For Playing
One team finds itself in a category of its own. It’s been a tough season for Saint Peter’s but hopefully, this painful rebuilding year leads to future success.
Saint Peter’s (0-29, 0-20 in the MAAC)
First game: vs Manhattan, Tuesday 2:30 p.m.
The last time the Peacocks won a game was against Marist in the 2022 MAAC Tournament. A wide range of changes encompassing the roster and the coaching staff meant that Jennifer Leedham had a very tough job in front of her heading into this season.
Saint Peter’s has come close to getting a win a few times in MAAC play, but the numbers don’t lie. The Peacocks are the worst offensive and defensive team in the league and, unsurprisingly, have the worst point differential.
The good news is that when Saint Peter’s makes the trip to Atlantic City, it is essentially the beginning of a new season. Unfortunately, it looks like it will just be one-and-done for the Peacocks.
Edited by Ricardo Martinez and Andrew Hard
Photo from Marist Athletics