19-13, 11-7 Conf
31-2, 18-0 Conf

Fitz carries Marist to MAAC title, NCAA tourney bid

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Marist played a near perfect game to cap its undefeated conference season and head back to the NCAA tournament.

Rachele Fitz scored 16 of her 20 points in the second half and Marist (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 24 AP) won its 21st straight game, beating Iona 83-63 to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship Sunday.

"It was a fitting way to end a perfect MAAC season," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "We saved our best for last and I'm so proud of the kids."

The championship secured the Red Foxes' fourth NCAA tournament bid in the last five seasons. Marist (31-2) has knocked Iona out of the last three MAAC tournaments, including an overtime victory last season in the championship game that started the Red Foxes' run to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.

"We certainly know that we can't just crawl up and bite someone this time," Marist guard Nikki Flores said. "Now that we are ranked we have a target on us. Our experience last year will help us move forward."

Erica Allenspach scored 18 points as five Marist players reached double figures. Tournament MVP Sara Smrdel and Julianne Viani each added 14, and Flores had 11 for the top-seeded Red Foxes, who beat Canisius and St. Peter's to advance to the final.

"When your MVP hasn't started a game in a long time it says a lot about the type of effort you get off the bench," Giorgis said.

Tiara Headen scored 15 points, Thazina Cook had 12, and Lauren DeFalco added 11 for second-seeded Iona (18-13). The Gaels beat Loyola and Fairfield to advance to the championship game. Iona was looking for its first trip to the NCAA tournament.

"We had a tremendous season, we were picked sixth in the conference and what this group did to get back to the top no one can take away from us," DeFalco said.

Iona has lost its last 17 games to Marist, including being swept in the two regular-season meetings. The Red Foxes won 81-55 on Dec. 7 and 86-78 on Jan. 18.

"They are the ultimate midmajor," Iona coach Anthony Bozzella said. "It wasn't a rematch as we graduated three players from last year. They are a great basketball team."

With Marist holding a 46-34 lead early in the second half, Fitz took over, scoring 10 points during a 14-6 run that put the game away. She had two three-point plays and a layup during the spurt.

Trailing 20-18 midway through the first half, Marist went on a 15-0 run over the next 5 minutes to take a 33-20 lead with 5:13 left. Flores had seven points during the spurt, including a 3-pointer to cap it. Iona finally ended its scoring drought with two free throws by Headen.

"I give credit to Nikki Flores, we couldn't control her," Bozzella said. "She got easy baskets for them. She is the catalyst. When she plays well they aren't going to lose."

Headen hit a jumper a minute later to end a 6-minute drought without a field goal. The teams traded baskets for the rest of the half and the Red Foxes went into the break up 44-30. Flores had 11 points and Allenspach added 10 in the half.