Sunday, November 28, 2010

Four Games in 25 Hours - Part III - Iona Women Get Their First Win of the Season

Iona Women's Basketball Coach Tony Bozzella has always believed in a tough non conference schedule to start the season. Last season, the Lady Gaels played the likes of national champion UConn, Big East power Notre Dame, Arizona and Arkansas.  After going through a gauntlet like that, Iona was 3-7.  But the tough schedule prepared them for conference play, which resulted in a second place finish in the MAAC and a WNIT berth for the third time in four seasons.

This season is no exception.  The Lady Gaels have already played the likes of Charlotte and Central Florida, and have upcoming games at Marquette, Michigan State and Arizona.  Not a schedule for the faint of heart.   And so far, Iona has struggled with an 0-3 start.

But there is nothing like home cooking and the Lady Gaels were hosting the Thanksgiving Classic.  While Toledo defeated UMBC in the first game, Iona played Brown in the second game.   After being stuck in traffic on the Hutchinson River Parkway,  I got to the Hynes Center unscathed, unlike almost a year ago, in time for the start of the game.

As I sat in my customary seat, three rows behind the Iona bench next to Tony's wonderful wife Maria and his two great kids Joey and Samantha, I noticed some familiar faces that were now Iona coaches.  Former Lady Gaels stars Thazina Cook and Lauren DeFalco, two important members of past successful teams, were now first year coaches for the Lady Gaels.

This is not an uncommon site when watching Iona women's games over the years.  Other former Iona players such as Toni Horvath and Jessica Anger were past coaches under Bozzella.  And Mandy Myers, a former player for Bozzella at LIU Brooklyn had been a member of the coaching staff for many years.  Finally, Associate Head Coach Christi Abbate has been with Bozzella for thirteen years, going back to the days when Bozzella had his first head coaching job at Southampton University.  Abbate was an assistant coach when Bozzella was the head coach of an LIU team that went to the NCAA Tournament in 2001.

Before tipoff, I found out that the Lady Gaels had been without one of their best players from last season, Diana Hubbard, due to concussion.   She suffered the concussion during an exhibition game and was missing her fourth straight game.  Hubbard was their top reserve from last season and should be a starter when she returns.  The Lady Gaels already were returning three of their five starters from last season in forward Kristina Ford, forward Anda Ivkovic and point guard Suzi Fregosi.

Iona was taking on a Brown team with a coach, Jean Marie Burr, with a 23 year history of coaching successful Bears' teams.  Brown had just come off an impressive road win at New Hampshire.  So this promised to be a competitive game.

And sure enough, Brown came out quickly and led 7-1 with 16:43 left.  It was evident early that Iona was struggling from the field.  The Lady Gaels missed their first nine shots until sophomore Samantha Kopp hit a layup to cut the lead to 7-3 with 13:19 left in the first half.  Brown maintained a lead, 21-13 with 8:43 left in the first half as Brown's Lindsay Nickel started finding the basket, scoring eight of Brown's 21 points.

But Nickel wasn't the only one finding the basket.  Iona's Ivkovic started scoring as well.   Only eight months removed from an ACL injury that ended her 2009-10 season early, Ivkovic was wearing a heavy knee brace. But it didn't affect her mobility or her shooting touch.  Ivkovic would score twelve points over the last eight minutes of the first half and the Gaels cut the Bears' lead to five, 28-23 at halftime.

Considering the Gaels had shot 7 of 28 from the field, including 2 of 12 from beyond the arc, it was amazing that it was only a five point half time deficit.   That was including the Gaels' Ford, their third leading scorer from last season, going scoreless for the entire half.    What kept Iona in the game was good defense as they limited the Bears to 33 percent from the field.  However, the Gaels needed to improve on their free throw shooting.  Despite having nearly three times as many free throw attempts, fourteen to Brown's five, Iona only hit seven of their free throw attempts.

Basketball games are often tales of two halves.  And this game was no exception.  The first half was a low scoring affair with two teams struggling from the field.  The second half would end up being at the other end of the spectrum.  And someone who really struggled in the first half would have a monster second half.

After going scoreless for twenty minutes, Ford would hit a layup and a three pointer in the first 37 seconds of the second half to tie the game at 28.  Ivkovic would follow with another layup and Iona had their first lead of the game, 30-28 with 17:30 left.   Gaels guard Marissa Flagg, who would end up having a terrific game, followed with another layup and the Gaels had now an 11-0 run over two halves to go up 32-28.

But Brown would respond with a run of their own.  Nickel, Sheila Dixon and Hannah Passafuime would combine to score all their team's points during a Bears 13-2 run and Brown was back up 41-34 with 12:58 left in the game.  After Tomica Bacic hit a layup, Flagg would contribute with four straight points and Iona's 6-0 mini-spurt made the score 41-40 with 11:10 left.

The game would remain close as Nickel's two free throws would put Brown up 47-44 with nine minutes remaining.  But then Iona would make a crucial, eventually game winning 14-2 run.  Ford would key this run with seven of the fourteen points.  Her layup with 4:24 remaining would put Iona up 61-49.  Ford would add another jumper to keep the lead at twelve, 64-52 with 3:34 left.

But having watched Hofstra blow a thirteen point lead with 3:50 left in their game vs. Western Kentucky, I have learned that no lead is safe.  And sure enough, Brown decided to make it interesting.  Dixon hit two straight three pointers to cut the lead in half 64-58 with 1:44 left.  Ford and Flagg would score Iona's next five points and the Gaels lead 69-61 with 34 seconds left.  But once again, the Bears rallied one last time.  Dixon and Nickel hit three pointers and the lead was down to three, 70-67 with 14 seconds left.

Brown had a chance as long as they could either steal the ball or quickly commit a foul and have Iona miss two free throws.  But unfortunately for the Bears, neither would happen.  Ivkovic broke the Brown press and was fouled while scoring a layup.  She hit the foul shot and the game was over.   Iona had its first win of the season, 73-67.

Both teams shot 50 percent or more from the field in the second half.  Brown was 11 of 22 including 5 of 11 from beyond the arc.  Iona shot 54.5 percent from the field in the second half, despite only shooting 3 of 12 from beyond the arc.  That was due in large part to Ford who scored all 18 of her points in the second half.  Ivkovic also had 18 and Flagg added 14 points.  For Brown, Nickel and Dixon each had 20 points while Passafuime added 11.

Both teams play again today in the last day of the Thanksgiving Classic at Iona.  Brown plays UMBC at 1:00 PM while Iona faces Toledo at 3:30 PM.

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