Coming off a historic season, the Iona College women’s basketball team is looking to continue its championship run with a different identity.
The Gaels have won six of their last eight games and are in fourth place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with four games remaining in the regular season before the MAAC Tournament in Albany March 2-6.
The four regular-season games include one in Hamden, Conn., against two-time defending regular-season champ and MAAC leader Quinnipiac University on Friday, Feb. 17, and one at home versus third-place Fairfield on Sunday, Feb. 19.
The Gaels won their first MAAC Tournament title by beating Quinnipiac in last year’s title game, snapping a 19-game winning streak for the Bobcats.
“Every year, it’s a new year, and you have to go through changes. We’re focusing more on our defense and our defense leads to our offense,” said Iona senior Marina Lizarazu.
“Everything is coming together. I hope we keep working hard. I think we’ll be even better.”
Defense has been key as the Gaels are second in the MAAC in scoring defense behind Quinnipiac, but head coach Billi Godsey said changes came on offense, too, with different players filling roles vacated by graduating seniors.
“We’re a bit more of a half-court team now, and we’re making our opponents guard us in the half-court,’’ said Iona’s third-year coach. “It took a while (to adjust). It’s definitely been a process.’’
It helps to run a defense and a half-court offense when the Gaels have the best all-around player in the MAAC. Ms. Lizarazu, a 5-foot-8 point guard from Madrid, Spain, was selected by conference coaches in a unanimous vote as the MAAC’s Preseason Player of the Year after earning first-team All-MAAC honors and the MAAC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honors last season.
“Marina is such a great point guard,” Ms. Godsey said. “She’s so bright. She can create opportunities for other people and she’ll look to score. She wants the ball in her hand.
“I believe she’s the best defensive player in the league.”
Ms. Lizarazu’s assist totals are down from when she ranked among the nation’s best with 6.3 assists per game two seasons ago. But as a senior, she’s looking to score, too, and ranks second on the Gaels in scoring. She leads Iona in assists and steals.
“I will try to do whatever’s best for the team in each game,” Ms. Lizarazu said. “Whatever it takes, I will do it.”
Ms. Lizarazu is joined in the backcourt by sophomore Alexis Lewis, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Last season, Lewis was named the MAAC’s Co-Sixth Player of the Year and earned a spot on the MAAC’s all-rookie team.
“Alexis is tremendous’’ Ms. Godsey said. “She wanted to take on a starting role and be a go-to person this season. She’s worked extremely hard at it.’’
Karynda DuPree, a 6-foot-4 senior, gives the Gaels a presence inside. The transfer from La Salle University is first on the team in blocked shots, second in rebounding and third in scoring.
In the next four games, Iona will look to continue to improve and build momentum for the postseason. The Gaels understand the importance of gaining a top seed for the MAAC Tournament. The top five seeds receive first-round byes into the quarterfinals, and the top three seeds play first-round winners in the quarterfinals. The fourth and fifth seeds meet in a quarterfinal.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, but we still have so much work to do,” Ms. Godfrey said.
The MAAC final is 5 p.m. on March 6 and is being televised by ESPNU. The tournament winner earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s one of our goals and we’re working toward it,’’ Ms. Lizarazu said. “It would be great as a senior to get to the NCAA Tournament again, but it takes very hard work to get there.”