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Canisius looks for finishing kick Seniors playing with eye toward MAAC Tournament

Perhaps those outside expectations were a bit unrealistic.

Granted, the Canisius women's basketball team returned everyone from last season's first NCAA appearance and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship. No wonder the Golden Griffins were the preseason favorite to repeat with expectations of another 20-win season.

Rolling to another MAAC title turned into a bit of a roller coaster ride with inconsistent play and problems with injuries.

And yet, Canisius is still in a similar position to last year -- treading in second place and poised to make a run in the MAAC Tournament.

The Griffs close out their home season this weekend, hosting St. Peter's at 7 tonight and Rider at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

It will be the final home games for the five-player senior class and, more important, a chance to improve upon their 10-4 MAAC record (13-10 overall) and solidify their position as one of the top four teams, ensuring them a tournament bye.

The Griffs are tied with Iona for second in the league behind Marist (13-1 MAAC, 18-5) and one game ahead of Loyola (9-5 MAAC, 14-9).

"At the level of college basketball that we're at, winning the tournament is the ultimate and when you do that all of a sudden, everyone's like, 'Well, you were the best team in the league.' We were not the best team in the league last year," second-year head coach Terry Zeh said. "In our hearts we might have been but Marist was the best team in the league last year. They won the [regular season] conference [title] and we came in second and then won the championship.

"Marist had a lot of people back as well and I think everyone enjoyed putting us as No. 1 but I don't think we're any worse of a team this year than last year. We're in a very similar position."

Indeed, the Griffs are on track to finish in second place, as they did last season with a 14-4 record behind Marist. Still, there were different obstacles for Canisius this season, particularly in dealing with prolonged injuries to key people -- something the team did not suffer with last year.

To start the season, senior forward Jessica Steeves missed three games with an ankle injury and took several more games before she got back in the groove.

Then senior guard Karly Chesko went down with a torn ACL. After missing 10 games, she recently was cleared by doctors to play and will participate on Sunday, though Zeh is uncertain how much she will play after that.

The next injury was a stress fracture to junior forward Abby Radunske. She missed 10 games, too, and returned to the lineup last weekend but still needs to get her timing back.

In their absence, however, younger players saw their playing time increase and were able to get comfortable in game situations -- most notably sophomores Laura Granzow and Mere Mullins.

Still, this Canisius team is led by its senior class, which begins with guard Becky Zak.

Zak ranks second on the team in scoring, averaging 11 points a game. She and fellow senior Cheri Wittlieb each broke the 1,000-point mark this season. Joining Zak, Wittlieb, Steeves and Chesko on senior day will be center Jackie Richards.

Emotions will likely run high this weekend, but for Zak, as has been her persona for four years, the most emotional aspect is getting a pair of wins and preparing for the final four games of the regular season.

"It's going to be a special weekend, but hopefully we get two wins out of it. That's the most of my concern," Zak said. "We're definitely better than we were a month ago but we're still not where we need to be. I think we're starting to stop thinking so much and just play. People are just bringing their personal skills out more and attacking different ways and setting up different players."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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