Saturday, February 27, 2010

Overtime Thriller Starts Off Three Games in 24 Hours Weekend

Having successfully shoveled out of the snowstorm and built my son's giant sled hill in the backyard (which he loved), I started the last regular season basketball weekend of 2010. Three games, 24 hours. First it was Iona-Marist women's basketball in New Rochelle on Friday night. Then a noon game at MSG with St John's hosting Pitt. Then finishing off the CAA regular season with Hofstra hosting Georgia State.

This was my second time up in Hynes Athletic Center in a week. I was there for Bracketbuster Friday as Iona defeated William and Mary. This time I was here for the return game of the Iona Lady Gaels taking on the defending MAAC champion, the Marist Red Foxes. Marist won the first game up in Poughkeepsie earlier this month, 68-58. Little did I know I was about to see one of the most exciting games of the basketball season.

Iona and Marist have a significant recent history. The teams have played each other in each of the past four MAAC Tournaments, twice in the championship game. Each time, Marist has won.

And the two teams seem to be on a collision course to play in the championship game again. Going into the game last night, Marist had clinched the regular season championship while Iona had clinched second place.

For this second game against Marist, the Lady Gaels were shorthanded as Iona was without one of its three best players. Forward Anda Ivkovic injured an ACL two weeks ago and is out the rest of the season. So for Iona to beat Marist, other players had to step up.

The game started off as a harbinger of things to come. Both teams traded leads early and shot the ball very well. The teams traded the lead a combined ten times in the first half with five ties. Iona appeared to have the upper hand, going back up 30-28 on a Samantha Kopp three with 3:56 left in the first half. But then a key second foul on Kristina Ford with 3:31 left in the half changed the momentum of the game. Ford, who was leading Iona with 13 points, went to the bench.

Marist responded with a 10-0 run capped by a Lynzee Johnson layup to put the Red Foxes up 38-30 with 1:59 left. Coach Tony Bozzella wisely called timeout and Iona was able to cut the lead to five, 42-37 at the half. Both teams shot very well at the half as Iona shot 52 percent and Marist shot 50 percent. Marist was 6 of 7 from beyond the arc, while Iona was 7 of 12 from three. The difference was Marist was outrebounding Iona, especially on the offensive end.

The second half started with Iona hitting the first basket to cut it to three, 42-39. But Marist would extend the lead twice to eight, the second time coming on a jumper by Rachelle Fitz, a name you would hear a lot over the PA system this night, putting the Red Foxes up 51-43 with 15:55 left.

But Iona would respond with an 8-0 run to tie the game at 51 on a Ford three pointer with 13:58 left. Then came what I thought was one of the critical turning point periods of the game. And it was provided by two very questionable calls by the same very short female referee.

After Fitz again put Marist up two, 53-51, Iona point guard Marisa Flagg drove the lane, went up for a shot, and collided with a Marist player. The referee under the basket with the best view called a blocking foul on Marist. The female referee who was further away from the play came over and brought over the third referee and the call was reversed to a charge on Flagg (she actually reversed the call) This of course incensed the crowd.

Ford would eventually tie the game at 53 on a jumper with 12:47 left. But less than 30 seconds later as both teams dove for a loose ball on the floor, the female referee again a somewhat suspect foul on Ford as she fought for the ball on the court. It was Ford's fourth foul and she had to leave the game. As a result Marist went on a 11-3 spurt to put the Red Foxes up 64-56 with 11:03 left.

It was during this time with the game possibly slipping away, Bozzella rolled the dice and inserted Ford back into the game. And the Lady Gaels responded with an 11-0 run, capped by, who else, Ford with a layup to put Iona up 65-64 with 4:57 left. The teams would trade leads again with Iona up 67-66 with three minutes left.

Then Iona suffered what seemed to be a huge blow to their team when Ford was called for her fifth foul again on a questionable call by you know who and Iona was forced to play without their star sophomore forward. But the Lady Gaels were not deterred and regained the lead on a jumper by Thazina Cook, who had a terrific second half, with 2:23 left to put Iona up 69-68.

After Diana Hubbard hit one of two free throws to put Iona up two 70-68, the Gaels would extend the lead to four 72-68 with 53 seconds left. on two free throws by Anna McLean. But Fitz again would respond with a basket, was fouled on the play by Iona's Suzi Fregosi and hit the free throw to cut it to 72-71 with 28 seconds left.

Marist immediately fouled Fregosi, who only hit one of two free throws to put Iona up 73-71 with 27 seconds left. And again, Fitz responded with a putback layup off an Erika Allenspach miss, to tie the game at 73 with 18 seconds left. Then came a bad play that could have cost Marist dearly. As Marist coach Brian Giorgis pleaded with his team to break off their press ant not foul, Fitz suffered a brain cramp and fouled Cook with 11 seconds left. Cook sank the two free throws and Iona was back up 75-73.

As the home Gaels crowd chanted DE - FENSE, Marist would drive the length of the court and with one second left, Fitz got fouled on a layup attempt by McLean and Fitz hit the first three throw to cut it to one. Bozzella called a timeout to try to ice Fitz before the second free throw. But to no avail, as Fitz hit the second one. We went to overtime tied at 75-75.

In overtime, Iona jumped out to the lead on a three by Diana Hubbard. But again, Marist would get an offensive rebound and who else, Fitz scored on a layup and cut the lead to one, 78-77. McLean would put Iona back up three 80-77 before Johnson tied the game at 80 with a three pointer with 2:45 left.

Then came the exciting end. Both teams had opportunities to take the lead but couldn't convert. After Cook missed a shot and Allenspach rebounded the miss, Marist called timeout with six seconds left in overtime. Allenspach would then hit a running driver with Cook in her face with 1.8 seconds left. Bozzella called a timeout to attempt a play, but Cook never got off a shot as the clock expired. Marist came away with the 82-80 win, much to the dismay of the home crowd.

Fitz, who scored her team's final seven points in regulation led all scorers with 28 points and had 12 rebounds including a devastating seven offensive rebounds. Corielle Yarde added 16 for Marist. Cook who had a monster second half, led Iona with 21 points, while Ford scored 20. Anna McLean, who during the game became only the third Iona player with 1000 or more career points and 850 or more rebounds, added 14 points for the Gaels.

The Lady Gaels shot 50 percent from the field for the game while Marist shot 45 percent. There were two major factors that were the difference in the game. Marist was a perfect 7 of 7 from the line while the Gaels were only 13 of 19 from the charity stripe. Even more important was the difference on the boards, as Marist outrebounded Iona 42-3o. And on the offensive glass, Marist outrebounded Iona 17-9. You can't give a team so many second chance opportunities.

But after two exciting regular season games, the teams seem destined to play a third time in Albany for the MAAC Championship. As Coach Bozzella walked off the court, he looked up at the scoreboard, smiled and shook his head. He knew how close his team had come to winning the game. To paraphrase the old adage, perhaps the third time will be the charm for Bozzella and the Gaels.

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