Sports

A look at hoops’ banner year

When we talk about the excitement, quality, and competitiveness of D-III sports, we talk about days like Saturday. There’s the packed house, the end-to-end excitement … the superiority over Wash U.

But more than anything, the de facto UAA championship games this weekend were an incredible statement because of what it took for the Maroons to get there. Neither team was expected to win the conference titles before the season, and both struggled in the middle of the year.

Saturday, they completed an incredible path to the top.

Making it count

The farther women’s basketball has reached, the harder the road has become.

Three seasons ago, the Maroons hit the hardwood running under new coach Aaron Roussell, knocking off fifth-ranked Wash U and seventh-ranked NYU to establish winning expectations for the first time in half a decade.

The next season, an improvement to 17–8 felt like a step back, and last year’s record 16–0 start meant nothing after a 2–7 finish.

This year was supposed to be the completion of a four-year project. The numbers looked promising. An influx of talented first-years replaced one starter lost, giving women’s basketball the best depth, versatility, and athleticism it had ever seen.

But at the same time that the team was blessed with talent, it was also burdened by it. The Maroons showed enough individual ability, but they failed to convert it into consistent production, and balance had yet to be found.

The rough patch came right at the conference schedule’s midpoint, when the women fell to UAA-leading Rochester despite outshooting and out-rebounding the Yellowjackets by significant margins.

They were three games and three teams behind first place, looking at another season with notable victories but without hitting high gear. Yet they got over the hump at the absolute toughest time: in the thick of the UAA season.

Pulling out of the slump took creativity. It’s a river that flows through the on-the-run distribution of second-year point guard Jamie Stinson. At 5.3 points per 40 minutes, she grabs little attention in the box score but plays offense and defense at a tone-setting pace.

Lineup experimentation sent Chicago seeking a fivesome that could produce offensively and defensively. The solution finally paired the twin towers: second-years Molly “Shaqney” Hackney and Anna Woods. They are similar in size and ball-busting blocking ability, but the two posts also found a way to feed off each other offensively. Easy buckets became the norm with defense-splitting bounce passes across the key meeting overlapping runs.

Last but not least, leadership from the first-years and upperclassmen earned the women their first UAA title since 1989. Rookie phenoms Dana Kaplan and Karly Kasper pushed proven veteran fourth-years Nofi Mojidi, Nicaya Rapier, and Lori Tanaka to re-earn their playing time. The sacrifice-all-to-make-it-happen third-year Alex Leach showed that wrestling away a game is both a mentality and a skill. Accountability and positional competition didn’t weaken this team—they drove it.

In Round 2 through the UAA, the Maroons kept climbing, avenging losses to Rochester and Brandeis. Some luck suddenly gave them a shot at the UAA title, at home against their bitter rival.

And they absolutely dominated.

Saturday’s game wasn’t just an answer to Wash U, winners of 10 straight UAA championships. Saturday’s performance was an answer to a season full of questions: three-point shooting, inside finishing, taking care of the ball, patience, and veteran production.

Meanwhile, it highlighted strengths in rebounding and defense, incredibly the team’s biggest weaknesses when head coach Aaron Roussell took over in 2004.

The talent and game plan amassed by Roussell was always there. The goal—to reach heights these players had so far missed—was never unclear. But Saturday was the culmination of a season of putting together the pieces.

Earning an identity

Where there is loss, there is opportunity.

Losing five seniors—four starters—from last year’s co-UAA champions, there was little obvious about this season. Maybe there was more talent. Maybe some explosiveness. Maybe there were some great leaders on this team.

Or maybe not.

The non-conference season offered few answers except that the team was capable of competing … sometimes. The offense seemed to come naturally, thanks to three outstanding talents: the human mismatch, third-year Matt Corning; the two-way playmaker, second-year Jake Pancratz; and the do-it-all, do-it-anywhere fourth-year Nate Hainje.

But good teams showed that the trio could only do so much. The Maroons’ rebounding and defensive performances varied wildly—an issue both in their physicality and mentality—as did their results. There was promise, but the men weren’t going to be given anything. They had to earn their big wins.

As many of the team’s players will say, the 7–5 start to the season lowered their expectations, particularly the conference-opening, 26-point loss at Wash U.

So it required the team to look backward, rather than forward. Looking at the big picture, their chances of getting an at-large bid were slim. But there was a lesson to be learned from the 2006–2007 squad: how to compete in every game, whether the opponent is bigger or smaller, faster or stronger.

That team was unique in its backwardness. The undersized posts could shoot the three, and the oversized guards could post up. The particulars were different this season, but the general versatility was just as valuable.

Soon, third-year Adam Machones and second-year John Kinsella were just as foundational as the top three. Blocked by talented guards in the past, they were relied on to provide a combined 20 points and 10 boards by the end of the season. Fourth-year big man Tim Reynolds provided consistency in his first healthy season, taking the pressure off third-year Tom Watson and allowing him to play up to his size.

Each player, down the line, elevated his game to establish his new role. It was an earned identity individually and for the squad as a whole.

As the UAA beat up on each other, the men kept themselves in postseason range. They were never in danger of being out of the race, even as losses seemed to be confirmations that they were a second-tier team.

So it was only appropriate that the doubts would creep up again, in the opening minutes on Saturday. Wash U’s Troy Ruths seemed nearly unstoppable, and the Maroons couldn’t keep up. It showed just how mortal the Maroons are compared to some opponents.

But then the answer came in Machones, who slowed the onslaught and then hit the big shots to turn the game in Chicago’s favor. With every big play he made, one of his teammates would step up in turn. It was a microcosm of what has made the Maroons so great this season.

In many ways, the men’s team is opposite from the women’s. Instead of trying to achieve their limitless potential, they have been trying to surpass more modest capabilities. Rather than pound teams into the ground with a deep-but-complementary bench, the men have overwhelmed foes with a squad shallow in numbers but willing to share the burden.

Two different paths, both a little circuitous, yet both incredibly impressive.

Those of us who have watched recent tournament teams in basketball, soccer, and softball know how quickly the postseason can be pulled out from underneath a team. Both the men and the women face tough brackets on the road.

Nothing is guaranteed.

But perhaps that will play exactly into the Maroons’ hands.