Marist and Hartford Set To Clash in Mid-Major Women's Hoops Showdown

Travis MillerAnalyst IFebruary 13, 2009

Don't make fun of my glitter-glue ineptitude.

Two of the top mid-major programs in women's college basketball over the past several years square off Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN2 as the Marist College Red Foxes (22-3, 13-2 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) visit the Hartford Hawks (14-8, 9-1 American East).

The game is part of the "Pink Zone" initiative to raise awareness about and raise funds for the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.

Don't be misled by the Hawks' eight losses. They're probably the best eight-loss team in the game—by far. Hartford beat Duke on a neutral court in November, 53-51, and it was no fluke.

The high of beating a national powerhouse got the best of the Hawks, as they dropped their next two games to DePaul and THE Ohio State, both NCAA Tournament teams last season.

The Hawks then suffered road losses to George Washington and Quinnipiac, games they probably should have won. Their next three losses came at Louisville (22-3), at Bowling Green (21-2), and at UConn (24-0).

Their last loss game Jan. 21 at Boston University, which is 10-0 in American East conference play. Hartford has won six straight and sits in second place in the conference.

If you'll notice, none of these losses came at home, where Hartford boasts an impressive 34-game home winning streak, one of the longest in the nation.

In addition to it being a Pink Zone game, Hartford will try to "pack the house," another women's college ball initiative to achieve better attendance. Chase Arena in West Hartford holds almost 4,000 spectators, and is already sold out. It's just up to the students to fill their section now.

As for Marist, the Red Foxes started the season 17-1 and reached No. 20 in the Associated Press polls before being knocked off at home by Fairfield in overtime on Jan. 23. It was their first conference loss since Feb. 16, 2007.

Marist rebounded nicely by winning three straight, but then was again beaten at home by conference foe Canisius Feb. 6.

The rude awakening has helped the Red Foxes regain focus as they trounced Loyola (MD) by 33 on Sunday, then avenged the loss to Fairfield by beating the Stags in their house by a dozen last night to regain sole possession of first place in the MAAC.

The matchup Sunday will be a rematch of last season's December meeting where Hartford beat Marist in Poughkeepsie, 49-32.

It was not a pretty game.

Only Rachele Fitz of Marist (12 points) and Danielle Hood of Hartford (10 points) reached double-digits in the scoring column. Hood has since graduated and was drafted by the expansion Atlanta Dream of the WNBA, but failed to make the team.

Marist and Hartford have only a pair of mutual opponents this season, neither of which is very telling—Albany and Boston University. Albany lost at Marist by 18, the first game of the season, and lost at Hartford by 26 two weeks ago.

As for Boston University, the Terriers lost at Marist by 11, but beat the visiting Hawks by the same margin. If Marist had played at BU or if the Terriers had played at Hartford, it would be easier to analyze the games, but that isn't the case.

BU is a very physically gifted, athletic team. The rematch at Hartford will be interesting on Feb. 24. Something tells me the Hawks aren't looking ahead.

Diana Delva is the Hawks' top player this year (12.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG), and tallied nine points in last season's meeting while grabbing an impressive 16 rebounds. Brandy Gang and Maria Laterza will have their hands full with Delva on the inside.

Another matchup to watch is Fitz (20.2, 9.2) against Erica Beverly (10.7, 7.2). Things are going to be physical in the paint, so free throws could be crucial to the outcome.

Delva (63 percent) and Beverly (71 percent) aren't locks to drain their foul shots, nor do they get to the line much, whereas Fitz (82 percent) and Julianne Viani (89 percent) make a living at the charity stripe.

Lisa Etienne, Ilicia Mathis, and MaryLynne Schaefer are an interesting trio of guards for Hartford. Etienne and Schaefer are experienced seniors, while Mathis is a star freshman.

The Hawks have a miserable assist/turnover ratio this season, as they are considerably in the red at 0.8 a/t. Marist is much more comfortable at 1.08. Look for Marist to pressure the ball and force turnovers. Viani (43 steals), Elise Caron (32), and Erica Allenspach (40) are all superb on defense.

The key for Hartford is to neutralize Fitz, Gang, and Laterza inside while still keeping pressure on the 3-point line so Viani and company don't start making it rain inside Chase Arena.

Fitz and Viani will be the main focus of the Hartford defense, so bench play for Marist (Gang, Corielle Yarde, Lynzee Johnson) will be important. Emily Stallings has been great off the bench since coming back from an oblique injury, so her to knock down mid-range jumpers could be huge.

The Hawks don't shoot particularly well from long range, so it will be important for them to get the ball inside and get Marist in foul trouble. If Marist's guards keep pressure on the ball and force turnovers, it will be a long day for the Hartford faithful.

My biased, glitter-glued mind predicts Marist in a tight, 64-56 game.