Fairfield, Marist advance to MAAC conference final

Marist coach Brian Giorgis postgame.

#2 Fairfield 63, #6 Siena 48

It took a strong two strong second half performances, but top-seeded Marist and Fairfield, the second seed in the tournament finally pulled away from resilient opponents to advance to the tournament final 63-48.

Fairfield was out of sorts in the first half, committing ten turnovers, and settling for late in the shot clock jump shots against 6th-seeded Siena. The Stags committed ten first half turnovers, which led to nineteen points for Siena. Lily Grenci of Siena was dominant, scoring fourteen points on six of twelve shooting. Fairfield leading scorer Taryn Johnson had nine points and seven rebounds, but too often it was up to point guard Desiree Pina to try and bail them out, and she shot a meager two for eight.

Still, with Fairfield playing poorly, they were only down by one at the half. “We talked about not turning it over, and trying to execute,” said Fairfield coach Joe Frager. “We have to pay attention to our execution.”

Things looked like they would go from bad to worse when Johnson picked up a quick third and fourth foul, but with their star on the bench, the Stags went back to playing disciplined ball, taking it to the basket instead of settling for jump shots. Katelyn Linney delivered on four of seven second half attempts on her way to a team high twenty points, and Pina committed only one second half turnover while scoring ten second half points.

Defensively, the Stags held Grenci to three of nine second half shot attempts, and 25 percent shooting by Siena as a team for the half. Slowly, with Johnson on the bench, the Stags opened up the lead, finally winning by the final fifteen point margin.

“Our team has a lot of chemistry,” said Pina, “whenever there’s a point of adversity there’s always a player coming off the bench that boosted us up this season.”

Frager was noticeably choked up talking about the importance and role of his senior point guard.

“I can’t say enough about her. She’s been a pinball all season, she handles the ball for 38 minutes per game, and gets the hell beat out of her. She’s come through, always makes the big shot for us.”

#1 Marist 68, #5 Niagara 54

The second game was similar to the first, with the underdog playing sound defense and preventing the favorite from getting going. Niagara only shot 28 percent themselves, but held Marist to the same. Like Siena, Niagara capitalized on turnovers, scoring fifteen points off twelve Marist turnovers. Niagara leading scorer Kayla Stroman had seven points, but on three-for-eight shooting. MAAC player of the year Corielle Yarde of Marist was held to four points, but her only field goal was a big three-point shot to tie the game at 22 for the Red Foxes. Kelsey Beynnon, who only averaged eight per game, scored ten to help keep Marist close.

It was the Purple Eagles of Niagara that came out fast in the second half though, starting the half with a 18-5 run. Niagara’s Chanel Johnson, Kayla Stroman and Shy Britton put the pressure on Marist, and the Red Foxes missed layup after layup. Yarde an all-conference player and Brandy Gang could not get going, leaving it to Beynnon, an eight point per game scorer to be their offensive firepower. She was more than up for the task.

Marist patiently, methodically worked their way back in the game, taking advantage of Niagara’s fouling to make shots with the clock stopped. Yarde hit another big three pointer, and Beynnon, who only once this season broke twenty points in a game, continued to hit. Marist worked the foul line with Beynnon hitting eleven of twelve attempts for the game. When Brandy Gang hit two foul shots, it was Marist in the lead with 30 seconds to go. Niagara missed, but Lauren Gatto rebounded and was fouled. Gatto’s one foul shot tied the score setting up a dramatic conclusion to regulation play. Leanne Ockenden missed a wide open Yarde in the corner, and Ockenden missed a three, and it was overtime in Springfield.

Gatto made both ends of a one and one to start the overtime. But it was all Marist from there. Yarde hit a three, Casey Dulin banked in a runner, and Yarde drove right down the middle for two more, and a five point Marist lead. The Marist run continued with Dulin hitting two more foul shot and  Ockenden hitting her first three points of the game. In the end the more experienced and talented Red Foxes pulled away to a 68-54 victory. It was only fitting the final margin came on a Beynnon layup, her 23rd point of the game.

“I thought the big key was at the end, as bad as we were playing, we refused to lose,” said Marist coach Brian Giorgis. “This person next to me (Yarde) showed why she was player of the year; took over, made some incredible threes and that’s what you have to do to win these types of games and to win tournament.”

Giorgis and his players raved about the turnout and support of the Marist fans, that drove up to “MAACachusetts” to watch the team.

“I can’t say enough about the fans, they travel and support us, and you can see the band and the fans really got into it, it was a great atmosphere, and it pumped up our kids. We logged a lot of minutes and I think it helped produce some adrenaline to carry them through that stretch.”

“We can’t thank them enough,” Yarde added. “It was do or die, I didn’t shoot well in the first half, so I figured I could only shoot better because I couldn’t shoot any worse.”

So it is on to the final that most anticipated from the beginning, number one Marist versus number two Fairfield.

“Whoever we face, it’s going to be tough. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy this one; at least for the first half,” joked Frager, “I’ll start worrying who we play in the second half.”

“Fairfield is probably one of the most difficult teams because they have a great inside player in Johnson, and they have a bunch of shooters around the perimeter.”

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