Up to No. 21 in Monday's Associated Press rankings, the Marist College women's basketball team is in a groove and playing its best basketball of the season.
The ranking ties the school's highest in history (last season in ESPN/USA Today Poll). It is the third straight year the Red Foxes have earned a national ranking.
Despite a significant discrepancy between the two polls (No. 21 AP, No. 29 ESPN/USA Today), the Red Foxes are playing much more like the former than the latter.
Depth was a huge concern for the first third of the season, but recent games have laid those worries to bed for good.
Averaging about 68 points per game in their first 13 games, the Red Foxes have exploded for 81, 98, and 86 respectively in their last three with an average margin of victory of 37.3 points.
Granted, these are against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opponents (Marist has won 33 straight in-conference), but those aren't the important numbers.
Marist's freshmen have stepped up in the biggest way, taking a huge load off the shoulders of Julianne Viani and All-American candidate Rachele Fitz.
Brandy Gang is leading the way, with double-digit scoring in four straight games. Though she had scored in all but one game before this stretch, she had not reached double-digits.
She has found her swagger inside, and plays like she's been in college longer than Gerry McNamara (he's still in school, right?).
Corielle Yarde is averaging 13.5 in her last two games (15, 12), and has jumped up the depth chart.
A pure shooter and No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 scoring option in high school, the transition to coming off the bench hasn't been easy for her. Head coach Brian Giorgis groomed her quick, and the sharpshooter has added a dangerous element to the Red Foxes. Oh, and she also has 11 assists and only one turnover her last two games.
Kristine Best finally looked to be breaking out of her shell as she dropped 10 points against Niagara on Jan. 9, but then found out she had mononucleosis and may be out until March.
Mono is nothing new to the Red Foxes, as Julianne Viani missed considerable time down the stretch last season with the illness, but came back in time for postseason play. This loss isn't as severe (no offense to Best), but will still be felt, as Marist will only be dressing 10 players until she comes back.
Rounding out the Diaper Dandies, Emily Stallings proved against Niagara she can come through when given playing time, too, as she dropped 10 points. In the 98-51 win, all four freshmen reached double-digits, setting career-highs.
All available players hit field goals for Marist (15-1, 6-0 MAAC), the second time this season 10 or more Red Foxes reached the scoring column.
In the most recent win, an 86-44 beating of Loyola (MD) on the road, all 10 available players registered double-digit minutes.
Junk time or not, the importance of being able to trust everyone on the bench to produce solid minutes was the biggest uncertainty when the season started.
The Red Foxes swept the MAAC awards this week, with Fitz winning Player of the Week and Gang winning Rookie of the Week. Both should be favorites to win the end of year awards as long as they continue playing as they have.
Marist hosts St. Peter's Friday and heads up to Albany to face Siena on Sunday.
Elsewhere around women's college hoops, Duke (No. 4 AP/No. 10 ESPN/USA Today)showed their resilience against Maryland (No. 12/16) Monday night, fending off a second half comeback to take out the Terrapins at Cameron Indoor.
The Blue Devils (14-1, 2-0 ACC) shot poorly from the floor (34.2%), which has been an Achilles heel this season. Duke shot 26.6 percent in its only loss of the season, a 53-51 upset courtesy of Hartford.
Courtney Paris notched her 106th (yes, 106) straight double-double last week, scoring 18 points and grabbing 20 boards in a 21-point win over Nebraska. Oklahoma has a tough week, albeit at home, facing undefeated Kansas State and top 10 foe Texas A&M.
Notre Dame (No. 10/4) lost tonight at Marquette. The Golden Eagles forced the issue, keeping the Irish in constant foul trouble. Notre Dame shot poorly from the charity stripe (8-14), while Marquette was 17-for-22.
Barring a UConn slip up at home against Syracuse or a North Carolina loss to Virginia, next Monday will be a special day as the two top teams in the country, both undefeated, meet at Chapel Hill.
It should be a great game. UConn hasn't played a ranked opponent on the road yet this season (the Huskies have actually only played five road games so far). Both teams beat their top mutual opponent, Oklahoma.
The Huskies blew out the Paris girls and company in Storrs by 28, while the Tar Heels had the tougher test, traveling to Norman, surviving by a single point. I think UConn takes advantage of matchups and prevails, but not by much.
Photo courtesy of daylife.com