- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Erica Allenspach is in the process of blowing her cover. After all these years of carving out her place as the quintessential hidden gem, she's headed to the NCAA tournament for the fourth year in a row, this time as the pulse of a team that was supposed to take a step back without a superstar.
What MAAC coaches know all too well is on the verge of going national. Allenspach is something special.
The conference player of the year, Allenspach scored 21 points, and added five rebounds and three steals while turning over the ball just once in 39 minutes, to lead Marist to a 63-45 victory against Loyola (Md.) Monday in the MAAC championship game at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard. The effort capped a 21-0 record against conference foes for the Red Foxes.
"She's capable of putting up maybe 40 or 50," Loyola coach Joe Logan said. "She makes huge shots. We cut [the lead] to 12, she makes a big 3. We cut it to 11, she makes the layup and gets fouled. So other people can score, yes, but she's the one who they go to when they absolutely need a basket."
With the win, Marist claimed the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth for the sixth season in a row and the seventh time in Brian Giorgis' nine seasons as the coach of one of the nation's most recognizable mid-major programs. That success began in earnest when the coach arrived in 2002, but much of the fame came courtesy of a run to the Sweet 16 in 2007, when Marist defeated Ohio State and Middle Tennessee before losing to eventual national champion Tennessee in a regional semifinal in Dayton.
Among those with a vested interest in those postseason games was Allenspach, then finishing her senior year of high school in Miamisburg, Ohio, a town not much beyond her 3-point range from Dayton and Columbus. Despite a wealth of Division I programs in the state and her own prep honors, Allenspach had already picked the school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., before it was famous in the women's game, in part for the age-old reason that it wanted her.
"I didn't get recruited by Ohio State or those other Ohio teams, so I was like, 'I think I'm making the right decision here,'" Allenspach recalled thinking while watching the upset of the Buckeyes on television. "And they won the second game and I'm like, 'OK, maybe I'm really making the right decision.' But to go to the game in Dayton, it meant a lot to me just because I could see them in person. When I saw how smart Coach Giorgis was, and I think they beat Tennessee in the second half (Marist outscored the Lady Vols 25-23 in the second half of a 65-46 loss), but just to see that made me feel more comfortable."
What Giorgis saw when he watched Allenspach play on an AAU team with more sought-after recruits such as Carlee Roethlisberger (now at Oklahoma) and Sarah Schultz (now at Ohio State) was a player who made a team better without taking a lot of shots -- a role player by choice as much as by deficit of talent.
"I didn't feel like I had to score that much," Allenspach said. "And for him to see me in that [role] just shows how intelligent he is as a basketball coach."
Even now, as the conference's best player and her team's leading scorer, Allenspach is about the least needy go-to player in the sport. She finished Monday's championship game with just nine field goals, fewer than four teammates. She got to the line eight times, so it wasn't like she never looked at the basket, but doing more with less is more or less her mantra. More than 120 career games, she has attempted more than 15 shots just twice -- hitting 11 of 18 shots in a win against Houston this season and 12 of 18 shots against Siena in a MAAC semifinal on Saturday. To put that in perspective, Jasmine Thomas took more than 15 shots 11 times this season, and she hardly qualifies as a shooter lacking conscience.
Yet as was the case in Monday's game as much as her shooting outburst against Siena, Allenspach is clearly the best player on the court more often than not in the MAAC and beyond.
"People want to key on her and stuff like that, but she's just one of the pieces in the offense," Giorgis said. "Yeah, we'll run some certain things for her and stuff like that, but she just knows when to step it up. If she had her druthers, she would rather just blend right in there and have the usual 14 points, five assists, three steals. I said in the beginning of the year, I didn't know if she was the preseason player of the year, but I darn know for sure that she's the most complete player in the conference and one of the most complete players this conference has ever seen."
Allenspach is precisely the kind of player who you can envision shooting baskets by herself at the far flung corner of a gym hosting pick-up games, the unknown face and unassuming frame added to a team as an afterthought who proceeds to lights up her opponents and lights up her teammates' faces when they realize what they lucked into. She even moves like a player used to spending hour upon hour running games back, unwilling to cede the court in defeat. She expends a minimum of energy moving from place to place during breaks in the action, conserving every bit of fuel behind an unchanging expression that hides any emotions that might be circulating behind the wall.
She plays like someone who has played a lot of basketball in her life for no other reason than it is what she does. And it turns out, that's exactly what transpired in Miamisburg.
"In the summer we played pick-up a lot, and I actually played with the boys, with my brother and his friends," Allenspach said. "And I feel like that helps me. I've played one-on-one with my brother my whole life, and it's usually first one to one [point] because then after that we just kick the ball down the street or hit each other and run home. But it means a lot playing against him my whole life because he has long arms and he was just a defensive player, so I knew if I could beat him it would translate against most girls."
Marist was supposed to suffer this season, at least on the national stage, without Rachele Fitz, a star freshman on that team that made it to Dayton and a player Giorgis simply referred to Monday as the greatest in the program's history. Instead, a team Loyola's Logan said looked more focused this season than last season is back in the Top 25 and back in position to make a run in March. As is always the case for Marist, that comes down to a team effort. It's just that the team effort has a lot to do with one player who personifies it.
"I felt very comfortable," Allenspach said of Monday's output. "I was just coming off a lot of good screens that we were setting. I just had to lead this team, and if that meant making shots, it meant making shots. If it meant finding the open player, I was going to force a shot; I was going to give it to the open player, obviously."
It sounds so simple when she puts it that way. As the MAAC can attest, it's stopping it that gets complicated.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
16dBonnie D. Ford