Things are different for the Iona College women’s basketball team this season.
A year ago, the Gaels were the No. 2 seed won they won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Women’s Basketball Championship. This season, Iona is seeded fifth and slated to play a Siena team its lost to twice this year.
However, despite the drop off, there’s been one constant for the Gaels: Alexis Lewis.
The sophomore is fresh off an All-MAAC First-Team selection and has been the driving force all year. Starting in all 29 games this season, Lewis averages 16.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. The Holy Redeemer grad’s points per game ranks third in the MAAC, while her rebound average is second.
“We approach the MAAC tournament the same way we would any game of the season,” Lewis said. “We have to take each game one game at a time, do the things that make us great to get the win, to get back to the championship.”
Lewis and her teammates will have a tough task right off the back, facing the Saints, who are playing just six miles from their campus at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.
Fourth-seeded Siena has gotten the better of the Gaels in each of the previous two meetings. The Saints won 58-46 in New Rochelle on Jan. 10 — and then again, causing Iona to fall out of contention for a top-four seed — 57-53 in the regular-season finale on Feb. 26.
“I mean, we play every team twice, so we’re familiar with every team, but going into Saturday, we just need to do the things that make us great for the whole tournament because we can’t afford to take plays off or get lazy,” Lewis said. “We have to make sure we stay locked in to what we need to go to get the win.”
Iona head coach Billi Godsey takes a different approach when watching the game film of her team’s losses. Instead of harping on what the opponent did to beat the Gaels, she focuses on how the Gaels can improve the next time around.
Iona’s next time around comes Saturday at 2:30 p.m., and Lewis believes her team needs to protect the glass and play strong defense.
“We didn’t box out very well. They had a lot of offensive rebounds,” the Holy Redeemer grad said about the Feb. 26 loss. “One thing we take pride in is stepping in and taking charges. I think if we are in our correct help spots — the biggest thing is communication. As long as we communicate I think we’re going to handle it.
“If we start off the game playing defense strong and we get them rattled, stay composed, then I think we’re going to have a lot of success.”
Even though the Gaels have three new starters this season — with Lewis being one of them — they have a few players with postseason experience from last year’s run through the MAAC.
Lewis, senior point guard Marina Lizarazu, senior forward Karynda DuPree and junior guard Philecia Atkins-Gilmore all played more than 20 minutes in last year’s championship game, when Iona beat top-seeded Quinnipiac 57-41. In fact, Atkins-Gilmore started 26 of 35 games last season, but has only started six this year.
“It’s our job, really, to lead the younger players, to set an example for them, to show them what they need to do when they step onto the court so that they could help us to continue to be successful, to get back to where we want to be,” Lewis said.
The path to a second-straight NCAA tournament berth is slightly tougher this season, and if the Gaels are going to get there, Lewis is going to have to be the leading force.
“We know we can rely on Lex to score whenever we need a basket, but she’s learning to affect the games in so many other ways,” Godsey told the Times Leader last week. “Her rebounding on both ends of the floor has become a major key to our success. Her voice as a leader is developing and defensively, she is beginning to come into her own. She’s just an incredible kid with so much more to come.”