BRIDGEPORT — Damika Martinez is one of the top players in women’s college basketball. The Meriden product proved it again on Saturday.
The junior scoring machine netted a team-high 23 points and spearheaded a 9-0 run to lead Iona to a 64-59 victory over host Fairfield at the Webster Bank Arena.
Martinez did not disappoint the nearly 30 family and friends in attendance as the Gaels (14-2 overall, 7-0 MAAC) earned their 13th victory in a row.
“I love playing in Connecticut,” Martinez said. “I always seem to play well against Fairfield and I always have a lot of fans coming in to show support for me. It’s an amazing feeling.”
The Stags (10-7, 5-3) took a 57-52 lead with bucket by center Katie Cizynski. The Southbury resident was the biggest threat for Fairfield. She scored a career-high 25 points and Iona had a tough time stopping the senior in the paint.
Martinez stepped into a 3-pointer with 2:31 left in the game to draw her team within 57-55. After another Cizynski deuce, Martinez struck again from the same spot on the floor to bring Iona one point, 59-58, with 1:31 on the clock.
Cizynski was blocked on her next shot attempt and Iona came down the floor and took the lead on a put-back by Joy Adams (16 points, 19 rebounds). Iona took a 60-59 edge with that bucket with 51 seconds left.
After Fairfield missed a 3-pointer, the Stags were forced to foul Martinez and she calmly sank both ends of a one-and-one.
Fairfield countered with two clean looks from beyond the arc tie the game, but missed them both. The Stags fouled again and Aaliyah Robinson drilled both free throws to finish the scoring.
“We had to come together and we had to play defense,” Martinez said. “We wanted to get some stops and get in transition because they couldn’t guard us in transition.”
Martinez played all 40 minutes, including the final 5:45 with four fouls.
“She’s a nightmare to defend,” Fairfield coach Joe Frager said. “Not only can she hit the outside shot, but she can beat you off the dribble.
“But what makes Damika special is her heart,” Frager added. “She is a competitor; she is a battler. When she plays, it’s the most important thing in her life. She plays like it’s going to be her last game and she has that nose to want the ball at the end of the game, and she knocks down big shots.”
Martinez has earned plenty of respect around the MAAC and across the country. The accolades keep piling up for the 2011 Platt grad. She entered Saturday’s game as the No. 4 scorer in the country with 24.7 points per game.
This week, Martinez was named among 29 other players to the Nancy Lieberman Award Watch list. The Nancy Lieberman is the award that goes to the nation’s top guard.
“That means a lot, but you can’t be satisfied. You have to keep working,” Martinez said. “You have to continue to be humble, remain focused and keep working hard.”
The highlight of the 2013-14 Iona campaign to this point was a 73-71 victory over Marist on Monday. The win snapped a 29-game Iona losing streak against the Red Foxes, the defending conference champions.
Not surprisingly, Martinez hit the game winner with 2.9 seconds left in the contest.
“That win meant a lot because we didn’t feel Marist respected us,” Martinez said. “We sent a message to the whole conference with that win that it’s going to be a battle in this conference.”
Martinez was last season’s MAAC Player of the Year and, after being named Preseason Player of the Year, is expected to earn the same distinction this year. So far, she has twice been named the MAAC Player of the Week.
As a freshman and again as a sophomore, Martinez was Iona’s leading scorer. She entered Saturday’s game tied for fifth all-time with 1,441 points. She already owns the school’s career 3-point field goal mark and single-game scoring record with the 42 points she racked up against Columbia in 29 minutes this year.
Back home, Martinez is the all-time leading scorer in Meriden history with 1,857 career points. Martinez is aware that Wilcox Tech senior Roosevelt Shider just broke the boys record and could catch her overall mark this year.
“I saw that on the Record-Journal twitter,” Martinez said. “It’s great for him. He’s having a phenomenal high school career. It feels good to hold that record. I know it will be broken one day and I hope one day I can meet that person, even though I know Rosie well individually. We played basketball at the Meriden Boys & Girls Club all of the time.”
Martinez, who played for Team Puerto Rico over the summer, is not far from becoming Iona’s all-time scorer. She was the first at the school to reach 1,000 points as a sophomore. The school record, held by Maggie Timoney with 1,849 career points, is well in Martinez’s sights.
“I don’t think about it or pay any attention to it,” Martinez said. “I just want to keep winning.”
Indeed, her focus is on numbers beyond the scoring column.
“I want to win the conference championship,” the 5-foot-7 guard said. “I want to win the MAAC. I want to be the player of the year and I want us to have the best defensive team. I have a lot of goals and we have a well rounded team. It’s hard to guard us.
“We all know as a team that we can make the NCAA Tournament,” Martinez added.
“We have to put the work in. We have to come out to the beginning to the end and make the other team struggle trying to guard us.”