Marist's 21st straight win clinches NCAA berth

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Making the NCAA tournament has become an annual rite of spring for Marist.

The names on the back of the uniforms change, but the results haven't. The Red Foxes won their eighth straight MAAC title with a 72-48 victory over Iona on Monday and are back in the NCAA tournament.

Marist keeps graduating stars and lost two others to injury early this season. It doesn't seem to matter.

"I believe more and more that our system works for us," said coach Brian Giorgis, whose team has won 21 straight games. "It's really the players that you get. We don't get the best players in the country, but we get some of the best people in the country."

Senior Elizabeth Beynnon scored 15 points to lead Marist. She and her fellow classmates started the day by leaving cards at breakfast for all the other players and coaching staff.

"We said to the coaches 'thank you for everything you do for us,' today's the day we repay you by bringing home the gold ball," Beynnon said.

While Beynnon took care of the scoring, Leanne Ockenden locked up Iona star Damika Williams defensively.

"We don't look at each other individually, they look at the name Marist and what they can do at both ends of the floor," Giorgis said. "To come up with this type of performance -- never in my wildest dreams. These kids believe in themselves."

The Red Foxes (26-6), owners of the longest active conference tournament winning streak, have won five NCAA tournament games since 2007. That's when the school -- some 90 miles outside New York City -- burst onto the national scene by upsetting Ohio State in the first round.

"Winning five games will always make somebody nervous," Giorgis said. "That's the fun part about it. We've gone through 21 games with a huge target on our back. Now we get back to the fun part, we don't have a target on our back, we're the underdog. We don't mind that at all."

Marist has produced a fine run under Giorgis. When he first came to the program in 2002 after a successful high school career in the area, the program had never made the NCAA tournament. Now the Red Foxes' home games are nearly sold out and the fans are entertained by a talented team and a spirited pep band.

Giorgis set up a challenging non-conference schedule, which featured games against UConn, Purdue, Oklahoma and Kentucky. The Red Foxes were 5-6 coming into the New Year after a 22-point defeat at Kentucky on Dec. 30. They haven't lost since, with only Fairfield coming within single digits.

It's the third time in the past seven years that Marist has beaten Iona in the title game. The Red Foxes have now won nine MAAC titles, matching Saint Peter's for the most in conference history.

Marist trailed Iona 15-13 midway through the first half before scoring 19 of the next 26 points to take a 32-22 lead on Emma O'Connor's jumper with 3:28 left in the half.

The Red Foxes led 34-27 at the break. They led 40-37 with 16 minutes left before putting Iona away with a 14-1 run. From there, it was just a matter of time until the celebration began.

Joy Adams had 15 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Gaels (20-12).

"In the second half, we really started to press when it got to 11," Iona coach Tony Bozzella said. "We've got to score, to get back in this and really gambled a little more than we wanted to."

Marist won the two meetings in the regular season, beating Iona at home by 14 and topping the Stags by 23 on Feb. 7.

"It's frustrating," Bozzella said. "We've got to find a way. We will find a way. This is the most upset I've seen a group in all my years. We've lost three heart-breaking semifinals games."