By Mike Benishek
Neither team has much of a physical advantage.
Neither team has much of a statistical advantage.
And while the number of fans wearing black and gold will likely dwarf those in red Sunday night in Iowa City, both the 11th-seeded Marist College women’s basketball team and its first-round NCAA Tournament opponent, the sixth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes, have enough tournament experience that neither will have the mental advantage, either.
Which means the team that makes the most of its strengths, and limits its weaknesses, will be the team that earns an invitation to the second round.
For the Red Foxes (27-6), the nine-time defending champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, that will mean keeping it clean — both on defense, and in taking care of the basketball.
Everything begins for Marist on the defensive end, where the Red Foxes hold opponents to 38-percent shooting and less than 60 points per game, led by lockdown <FZ,1,0,9>wings Leanne Ockenden and Sydney Coffey.
But a more subtle secret to their success lies in the fact that the Red Foxes commit just 13.5 fouls per game, second fewest in the country. They ended the regular season with 13 consecutive games allowing their opponent less than 15 free-throw attempts, and held both Kentucky and Ohio State under that total.
Marist doesn’t give away free points, and can’t start Sunday, especially given Iowa’s 74.4 free-throw percentage, 35th in the country.
The fewer trips the Hawkeyes make to the charity stripe, the greater Marist’s chances of holding them below that 78.6 point-per-game average.
Besides, with essentially a six-player rotation, one Red Fox in foul trouble would be one too many.
Iowa’s set of active, slashing guards will certainly try to make that happen, especially its do-everything, First-Team All-Big Ten point guard Samantha Logic.
But for as crucial as the junior playmaker is to the Hawkeyes’ democratic offense, Logic will present an equal challenge to senior point guard Casey Dulin on Marist’s side of the ball.
Dulin, who loves to ride that line between reckless and dynamic, must do so with more precision than she’s been able in recent months, after being slowed by an early-season broken foot and mid-season broken nose.
In the MAAC final, Dulin set an aggressive tone for Marist’s 17-point comeback by barreling toward the hoop for layups, assists and foul shots. She even flirted with a quadruple double — 14 points, seven rebounds, seven assists … and eight turnovers. Most of those charitable donations came on simply senseless passes, and five came in the second half.
A player like Logic, who averages nearly 2.5 steals per game, will turn those errant passes into fast-break layups for her teammates.
Dulin will have to be at her best, and at least hold her own against Logic.
But then, Coffey will have to be at her best, too, and continue to take an increased offensive initiative.
And, Tori Jarosz will have to be at her best. No Red Fox is tougher for Iowa to scout, as the star-crossed Vanderbilt transfer, who endured multiple injuries in the last two years, is just scratching the rust-filled surface of her potential.
If the 6-foot-3 redshirt junior can turn in another performance like her 21-point, 14-rebound effort at Iona earlier this month, Iowa’s 6-4 Bethany Doolittle will have her hands full on Sunday.
To steal one of Giorgis’ favorite clichéd basketball terms that simultaneously over-simplifies the game and says all that needs to be said, Sunday comes down to execution.
With teams as evenly matched as these, the winner will be the team that executes its goals and plays up to its potential.
Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to knock down an open shot or two.
Mike Benischek writes commentary for the Poughkeepsie Journal. firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4722, Twitter: @BenischekPJ.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball