Unbeaten women’s hoops faces first major test

By Sean Ahmed

The 2005-2006 women’s basketball team may have already secured its place in the school record books with a 10-game winning streak and two national rankings, but all paper accolades will be rendered meaningless once the Maroons walk out onto the Washington University Field House floor Saturday afternoon. The second—and more important—season will have begun.

“Our goal is to win our next game,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “You keep doing that, and by the end of the season, things have worked out for you. Everyone on our schedule that we have left has a chance to beat us, but we also have a chance to beat everybody.

“But if you can’t get up for Wash U, then something’s wrong.”

Though the Bears’ 63–56 loss at Maryville Wednesday night removes the “Battle of the Unbeatens” tag from the weekend’s conference opener, it has taken little else away from the rivalry game. Both teams enter the game with 10 wins and ranked in both the D3hoops.com (Chicago at 19th, Wash U at 3rd) and ESPN/USA Today (21st and 1st) polls. Both are powered by high-octane offenses (78 and 82 points per contest) led by All-American post players (fourth-year Susie Gutowski and fifth-year senior Kelly Manning).

Most importantly, both teams know they can beat each other. After having lost 31 straight games to the Bears going into the league opener last January 5, the Maroons threw that bit of history out the window and put the program back on the map. Chicago trailed by 14 at halftime and soon after lost Gutowski to foul trouble, but the Maroons came charging back in front of their home crowd and, on third-year shooting guard Korry Schwanz’s 15-foot jumper, tied the game with five seconds left. Chicago ultimately won 70–67 in OT.

The Bears got their revenge in the regular season finale, allowing the Maroons to be tied as late as 16 minutes into the game but dominating the rest of the way in a 80–57 blowout. That loss knocked Chicago out of a tie for the UAA lead and kept the team out of the playoffs.

“Last year, I don’t know how many of us thought we had a chance against Wash U,” said Gutowski, who leads the team with 14.2 points per game on 54.9 percent shooting. “Beating them was huge for us—now we know they are beatable. Our confidence in ourselves and each other has grown—the offense especially is much tighter than last year.”

The offense has again been the Maroons’ biggest strength as they continue to improve on their wide-open, fast-break scheme. So far the system has generated an astounding number of easy baskets, a large reason the team is shooting almost 47 percent from the field and getting 23.5 free-throw attempts per game. This year’s scoring average is more than eight points higher than last year’s program-record 69.7 average.

Though the usual suspects Gutowski, second-year Nofi Mojidi (13.5 ppg), and Schwanz (12.0) continue to light up the scoreboard, fourth-year power forward Jenn Kaiser has given the Maroons another offensive weapon. The 6-foot post player leads the team with a 60.3 field-goal percentage to go along with her 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in her first full-time starting job.

“I’d kill to have two more years with that kid,” Roussell said. “She’s playing a lot tougher, and she’s getting the rebounds now. She had the talent last year, but she was still probably trying to get her feet set. People are really starting to take notice of her.”

Even more impressive has been the depth beyond those four top scorers: The Maroons have had seven different players turn in 15-plus point performances this season. Fourth-year point guard Janae Winner and second-year swingman Nicaya Rapier were the last two to do it with 16- and 15-point games in a 76–54 comeback win December 17 at Augsburg. Those two are usually more noted for the dirty work they do to spur the offense; Winner provides 5.4 assists and Rapier 7.7 boards (3.4 offensive) per game.

As shown in last year’s first contest between the two teams, it’s hard to shut down all of the Maroons’ weapons.

“Our depth is often overlooked. It’s probably the strongest thing we have,” Roussell said. “It goes beyond just the first couple people off the bench—we’ve had a lot of people give us good minutes. We’re going to need those people off the bench, both in games and in practice. I think the starters will say that they’ve gotten better in practice because of the bench.”

The big drawback to the style of play has again been turnovers, of which Chicago has averaged 20 per game. Some of that has been the natural consequence of a more organic, risky offense, but others have resulted from lackadaisical effort. The latter giveaways will need to be kept to a minimum in order to defeat a tough defensive Bears squad that kept the Maroons to under 40 percent shooting in both games last season.

“They’re tough because they are aggressive, constantly moving. No one on their team is lazy,” Gutowski said. “One of the best things we can do is match their intensity—they haven’t had someone challenge them like that this year. If we can get them flustered or nervous, make a few runs, they’ll fall apart like they did when we beat them at home last year.”

The Bears will still be a physical and athletic foe, though they lack some of the size advantage they had last year. Still, with a +11 rebounding margin this season, Wash U can generate a lot of extra chances for itself. Practices have focused on toughness drills—giving players “bruises and floor burns,” according to Gutowski—and matching the Bears on the defensive end by fighting for box-outs and hustling back on defense in transition.

“They do everything hard, not necessarily everything right,” Gutowski said. “We need to read the defense and take advantage of their mistakes.”

Perfect record aside, the Maroons have turned up the intensity for the first big test of the season. Many more will follow too, as the UAA has two other Top-25 squads in 2nd-ranked Brandeis (7–0) and 15th-ranked NYU (9–0). Only one conference team, Carnegie Mellon (4–7), has a losing record right now.

“The next step would be applying what we know we can do to 40 minutes of a game,” Gutowski said. “We haven’t had a good test this year—we could get away with not giving 100 percent. That ended with our last non-conference game.”

After Saturday’s 1 p.m. affair, the Maroons travel to Benedictine (4–7) on Monday for their last non-conference challenge of the year.