I got to my seat in the Mack Center during late in the second half between Central Connecticut State and Auburn consolation game, won by the Lady Tigers. The crowd was small, not surprising for a Thursday afternoon right before the holidays. But as usual, the Marist Lady Red Foxes brought a good contingent.
And it wasn't surprising to me, since I know full well the success of Brian Giorgis and his program up in Poughkeepsie. Since they play in the same conference as Tony Bozzella's Iona Lady Gaels, I have seen Marist play Iona many times. And without fail, though often very close games, the outcomes were always the same, with the Lady Red Foxes winning.
As I noted, the Lady Red Foxes have a large following. I remember well seeing the Iona play Marist at the McCann Center back in February 2010 for "Pack the House" night. It was right out of an Indiana high school basketball game. Three thousand fans packed into a wood paneled gym. I wrote an article about that night called "Hoosiers on the Hudson".
Over the past eight seasons, Marist has won the MAAC Women's Basketball Championship seven times and thus have been in the NCAA Tournament seven out of the last eight seasons. They have won four NCAA Tournament games during that stretch, and the Lady Red Foxes made the Sweet Sixteen in 2007. They have finished undefeated in MAAC conference play twice during that stretch as well.
The Pride certainly were no slouch entering the game at 8-2. Their only losses were at nationally ranked Gonzaga and at Hartford, who won the America East Championship last season. They have wins over St John's and Seton Hall as well as defeating Kansas State and Drake in the Cancun Challenge.
But then the Pride's Shante Evans and Candice Belloccchio took over, scoring ten of Hofstra's first twelve points, as they cut the lead to 13-12. A Candace Bond three pointer put the Pride in front 16-15, a lead they would not relinquish until late in the game.
If there is one word that aptly describes Evans, it is "relentless". On each of her first two baskets, she grabbed two offensive rebounds with Marist players hanging all over her. Evans is probably the strongest player in the CAA and she also has a nice shooting touch which she displayed in the game by hitting several jumpers.
Bond's three pointer was part of a 12-2 run that saw Hofstra extend their lead to 27-17 over Marist. By this time, the Pride caught up to the Lady Red Foxes on the boards, thanks in large part to Evans. With a little over five minutes left in the first half, Evans already had a double double.
During halftime, I went and got lunch. As was the case when I entered the arena, there was a New York Life agent by the concession stand trying to get me interested in life insurance. With my hunger in full force, I respectfully declined, got my food and went back. I have no qualms against New York Life and actually appreciate that they sponsored the tourney. Just college basketball and nourishment take precedence for me over speaking to life insurance agents.
The score was 49-36 Hofstra with 15:56 left in the game. The Lady Red Foxes were on the ropes. But teams with a long recent history of success like Marist have a deep confidence in them. A confidence that they are never out of any game.
And the Lady Red Foxes would respond to the challenge. Kristina Danella would score eight points to lead her team on a 20-8 run over the next seven minutes. Hofstra was now up only one, 57-56 with a little less than nine minutes left. We now had the setup for an exciting finish.
The Pride maintained the lead for the next several minutes and were actually up six, 64-58 with five minutes left. Then Corielle Yarde took over for the Lady Red Foxes. She hit two of the next three Marist baskets, both on layups to tie the game at sixty four. Then Casey Dullin hit a layup and the Lady Red Foxes had their first lead, 66-64 since 12:37 left in the first half. The pro-Hofstra crowd was stunned.
But the Pride went back to the person mainly responsible for their success for most of the game - Evans. She had not scored over an eight minute span which mainly coincided with the Lady Red Foxes' rally. But she was determined to not leave the Mack Center without a win. She hit two foul shots to tie the game at sixty six. Then after Marist took the lead, again Evans went to work. She rebounded a Yarde miss, then hit a layup to tie the game at sixty eight with thirty two seconds left. We had the setup for an exciting finish.
The game now came down to coaching. Hofstra made the first move as Krista Kilburn-Steveskey had her team foul Marist's Ockenden with four seconds left. Ockenden hit the first free throw and then Giorgis called timeout to setup the old missed free throw rebound attempt. Ockenden did just that on the second free throw and on the rebound scramble, Evans was called for traveling. Marist had one more chance to tie or win the game with a three.
Kilburn-Steveskey called timeout to setup her defense, likely trying to deny Marist's three point staple. The Lady Red Foxes got the ball to their best player, Yarde, who missed a jumper. On the ensuing rebound, Dulin put up a shot as the buzzer sounded that went in. Originally the referee called the basket good.
As they usually do on field goals at the buzzer, the officials went to the scorers table and reviewed the replay. They ruled the shot came after time had expired and then after some confusion, the game was ruled over. Hofstra won the New York Life Invitational 71-69.
Evans wasn't the only Pride player with a double double. Bond had fifteen points and fourteen rebounds. Loper added fourteen points for Hofstra. Yarde led four Lady Red Foxes' players in double figures with fourteen points. Dulin had fourteen points as well for Marist.
Having seen many women's basketball games over the years, which includes a Women's First Round NCAA Regional in Storrs, I can tell you this was a first round NCAA Tournament game. It was that good and it was the most exciting game of the college basketball season, and yes folks, that includes the St Joseph's vs Iona overtime game I saw in New Rochelle the day before Thanksgiving.
It was that good of a game. Best game. Of season. So far.