In the first 35 years of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, one basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championship. That special group is the 2006-07 Marist women’s basketball team, and today marks the 10th anniversary of the Red Foxes’ victory over Middle Tennessee State which put them in the Sweet 16.
The 2006-07 edition of the Red Foxes was coming off its second MAAC championship in three years, but was picked to finish second in the MAAC Preseason Poll, trailing only a burgeoning Iona team which Marist defeated by one point in previous year’s conference semifinals.
The Red Foxes rolled through the regular season at 24-5 overall, and won the MAAC regular-season championship by four games over Iona at 17-1. Rachele Fitz burst onto the scene as a freshman, winning a conference-record 11 Rookie of the Week Awards en route to being named MAAC Rookie of the Year. Senior Alisa Kresge was named MAAC Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight year. However, no Red Fox was named First Team All-MAAC. Fitz, Kresge, and red-shirt junior center Meg Dahlman all received Second Team All-MAAC honors.
To reach the NCAA Tournament, the Red Foxes had to win three games in three days in the MAAC Tournament. Marist cruised past Manhattan in the quarterfinal round, and Siena in the semifinals. But another hard-fought game with Iona loomed for the conference’s automatic bid. Neither team led by more than three points in the final 10 minutes of regulation, and it resulted in what remains to date the only overtime championship game in MAAC women’s basketball tournament history. The Red Foxes never trailed in the extra period, and prevailed 64-57.
Part I: Game Planning For The Buckeyes, Getting On A Plane & Going Somewhere Warm
On the evening of Monday, March 12, the Red Foxes (now 27-4) gathered at Shadows on the Hudson and learned that they received the #13 seed in the Dayton Regional, and would face #4 Ohio State at Stanford five days later. The Buckeyes were 28-3, ranked #5 in the Associated Press, and #7 in the USA Today/Coaches’ Poll. They had been bumped down to a #4 seed after losing star guard Brandie Hoskins, the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, due to injury a month earlier. The 55 wins the teams had entering the game was the most of any first-round tournament match-up that year.
Part II: Tournament Victory #1
To this point, Marist had never won an NCAA Tournament game in its history. The Buckeyes led for most of the first 20 minutes, but red-shirt sophomore Julianne Viani’s three-pointer on the final possession of the half cut Ohio State’s lead to 34-30. The Red Foxes took the lead for good on a three-pointer by Viani with 9:26 remaining, and withstood a late Ohio State charge thanks to clutch free-throw shooting by Viani and junior guard Nikki Flores down the stretch. The Red Foxes forced Jessica Davenport to commit 11 turnovers, and held to her 13 points – seven under her season average.
Giorgis: We had to research what they did, and what they liked to do. We saw that their freshman point guard (Maria Moeller) didn’t shoot much. Her job was to get the ball into the post. We wanted to use our best help defender on her, who was also our best defensive player in Alisa Kresge. We wanted to come up with a game plan to neutralize Davenport and hope the others weren’t going to have a big day.
Dahlman: Up until that point in my basketball career, guarding Jessica Davenport was one of the toughest assignments I ever had. She was unlike anyone I ever played against, with her physicality and finesse around the basket.
Kresge: I believed in our whole staff with the game plan, they were really strong at that. One of my strengths was helping. That was easy to me, to double down as much as I can.
Flores: I thought we did a good job on Davenport. I remember Meg taking two huge charges.
Dahlman: I took a pass from Jules coming around a backscreen, and I got my legs taken out and my head hit the floor. They brought me to the Stanford doctors, and I got more tired doing the clearance drills than I did during the game. But they cleared me, and I was elated I could go back in there and be there from my team.
Giorgis: Julianne hit a big bucket before the half, and we were still in the ballgame. Smerdie hit a bunch of big shots. Rachele was Rachele.
Viani: I just remember feeling this overwhelming sense of God-given peace and poise throughout the entire game, and of course my buzzer-beater at the half was exciting.
Smrdel: They weren’t pulling away, and we were going shot for shot with them. As the game went on, we thought this was a real possibility.
Giorgis: We ran an out-of-bounds play that we’ve run twice in my career. Nikki was inbounding, and they put Davenport on her, but she passed it to Kresge on the baseline. And then it was advantage Nikki because she was quicker.
Flores: Coach said, “If I wrote it up, I knew you guys would do it right.” We never ran it before then, and never practiced it either.
Kresge: Coach Giorgis is brilliant. We had a pretty smart team, and that was a big play to get the ball to the right person and hit free throws. There was nobody better than Nikki Flores.
Flores: Free throws – that’s the one thing I did well in college.
Giorgis: They would score late, but then we’d hit our free throws and get it back to a two-possession game.
Viani: When the horn rang and we won, and it sunk in – I will never forget that feeling.
Fitz: I remember our teammates rushing the court, and hugging us. That was a really special moment for Marist women’s basketball. I felt like we were a close team.
Part III: Strength vs. Strength With The Sweet Sixteen At Stake
Less than 48 hours later, the Red Foxes faced fifth-seeded Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders entered the contest at 30-3, riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 27 games. They featured a suffocating press, but the Red Foxes committed the fewest turnovers per game of any team in the nation. Middle Tennessee State backed off its press after Marist grabbed a 40-29 halftime lead. Marist’s lead was whittled to two early in the second half, but the Red Foxes pulled away and prevailed, 73-59. Marist became the third #13 seed in NCAA women’s basketball tournament history to reach the Sweet Sixteen, a feat that has not been accomplished since.
Smrdel: I think we had confidence from the beginning of that game, once we came out and played well. We thought, if they make a run, we’ll come out a make another run, and that’s what happened.
Johnson: I came in during the second half, and I had an open three and I didn’t take it. Kresge yelled at me for not shooting. In a timeout, Giorgis said to me “You’re not in for your defense.” The next three I got, I took it and made it from the corner. Then I had a three-point play.
Dahlman: Kresge was an amazing teammate to have. She was our coach on the court.
Giorgis: Kresge showed her mettle as Defensive Player of the Year. She guarded the two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year (Chrissy Givens), and held her well below her average (scored 16, averaged 22.7). She could do it all defensively.
Kresge: We all had our role, and it all came together.
Viani: It was just and ecstatic feeling knowing we were going to the Sweet Sixteen. The enormity of it didn’t even sink in immediately.
Flores: In the locker room postgame, it was foreign territory not being able to touch our phones (due to NCAA open locker room media regulations). We all had this running count on who was getting the most text messages. I’m pretty sure Lynzee Johnson won, which I’m not surprised about.
Johnson: I kind of cheated – I got the most because we were going to play in my hometown. It was a great memory for my whole family.
Part IV: A Frenzied Five Days
The Red Foxes earned attention from all over the country following the Middle Tennessee State game. Flores made the cover of the following day’s USA Today. After the Red Foxes flew from Oakland to Islip’s MacArthur Airport and bused back to campus the next day, they were greeted by their adoring fans, handled countless media requests, and prepared to face the nation’s top team in Tennessee.
Smrdel: I think we were up all night just watching SportsCenter and wondering, “Is this real? Did this just happen?”
Flores: When we were in the hotel, I had seen the USA Today cover. But it’s not about me, it’s the success the team had. Meg Dahlman asks, “Did you see the cover of USA Today?” She gave me a big hug. Then they embarrassed me in the airport completely. There’s a man waiting for his flight and reading USA Today, and Meg goes up to him and asks, “Sir, do you know who’s on cover?” And then she points at me. Then I wave and it’s like, “Meg, stop.” And then she says, “She’s here all flight for autographs.” Then the whole team jumped on it. But we picked on each other because we cared about each other.
Fitz: We were on cloud nine. We were so pumped. Our welcome home was sweet – we got roses when we came off the bus. Our fan base was so proud of us, it was so great we could share that with them. For them to welcome us home like that, that’s why we always loved playing at home. Those people came to every game and cheered for us. Our town and our community cared about us.
Smrdel: I don’t think anybody was expecting that number of people to show up on campus when we got back.
Dahlman: ESPN came to campus, and had us do a Cinderella shoot. I remember doing all those fun kind of promos, and interviews with the hometown papers.
Flores: We were like, “All this stuff happens? Crazy, let’s do it.” You look at the bigger schools, and they’re used to it. For us, it’s a once in a lifetime moment. Whatever anyone needed me to do, I was there as long as I didn’t have class. It was crazy, but it was fun.
Giorgis: That whole week, (Assistant Sports Information Director) Mike Doughty kept bringing in all these people that came in to do interviews - New York Times, Boston Globe, Daily News, Washington Post. I just sat in my office, and they just kept coming in.
Part V: A Trip To Dayton & Top-Seeded Tennessee
On Friday, March 23, the Red Foxes chartered to Dayton for its regional semifinal match-up two days later against top-seeded Tennessee, a team featuring Candace Parker and legendary head coach Pat Summitt. Marist outscored Tennessee in the second half (25-23), but the Volunteers prevailed by a score of 65-46. Tennessee would go on to win that year’s national championship, but the memories from a historic run remain.
Dahlman: I had been a Tennessee fan since upper elementary school. The night before the game, we had a huge dinner at Lynzee’s, and her family is avid Tennessee fans. Her mom left a Tennessee jacket outside the door, and I had walked over it when I went in the house. And Lynzee’s mom tells me, “No, you will go outside, and you will walk on that.”
Fitz: It was the first time we had all gone to Lynzee’s house. We just spent time together and enjoyed each other’s company. We all went to her basement, and her parents cooked for us.
Flores: You’re playing against a legendary coach and one of the best – if not the best – players in the country. I’m not mad at all that we lost to them. If you’re going to go out, go out against the eventual national champions. I do know we went in it to win. We prepared like we were going to win.
Giorgis: They were the #1 team in the country. The funniest thing was in pre-game, their band played a song, and our band played the exact same song. It was like a battle of the bands.
Flores: Halfway through the first half, we settled down, and kept it a game for the most part. With their firepower, it’s hard to sustain what you’re doing because you expend so much energy on the defensive end.
Viani: Just getting the chance to play against the legendary Pat Summitt with the screaming Tennessee fans everywhere in Dayton was a really epic moment in time. Looking back at what she’s done throughout the years, it’s even more incredible we got a chance to face her.
Fitz: It was so close in Dayton, and my family and friends were able to come. My best friend from grade school came. My AAU coach, Tucker Neale, had shirts made up for my family & friends. That made it really special.
Giorgis: It was great to have my family there. I still have that picture on my refrigerator - brothers and sisters, aunts and cousins, my dad. It was pretty cool.
Dahlman: Going to Dayton was awesome. My brother came down from Columbus, and my family from Chicago came out. We had fans from home who flew in.
Johnson: It was one of the best moments of our lives. Both sides of my family, all my old coaches and teachers were there because it was a five-minute drive. I still have people who come up to me today and tell me they were there. Now that I’m older and wiser, it was a really big deal. It’s cool that we did it with people who are like our family. We still plan our summers and trips to see each other.
Kresge: It was a whirlwind. It wasn’t until about a year later until I went back and watched the games. You enjoy it, but you don’t really see everything that happens until afterward. What we had done was really special, and it couldn’t have been done with better people.
Hein: Looking back, my four amazing years at Marist College were easily the fastest and most rewarding years of my life. Our Cinderella story is something that will forever be a part of my story that I get to tell my kids about one day. Sometimes I feel as though it wasn’t real, but luckily, I have the video to prove it.