Women’s hoops traps Bears in opener

By Joe Katz

It wasn’t a blowout, and it wasn’t a coronation. But in a big-time game against their biggest rival, the women’s basketball team made it clear that this time around, they would be just as dangerous in the second half of the season as they were in the first.

Almost one year to the day after the wheels came off the cart for Chicago’s 2005–2006 season, the 17th-ranked Maroons emerged on the sweet side of a 54–51 war of attrition against the 24th-ranked Wash U Bears (8–4, 0–1). The Saturday afternoon brawl, which served as the UAA opener for both squads, was a nail-biter to the end, with a pair of free throws from second-year guard Alex Leach (nine points, seven boards) putting it away for the home team with just five seconds left in regulation. Chicago has now run its record to 11–0 for the first time in program history.

The win was all the more important because this was not the first time the women had a shot to open their year with an 11-game win streak. The Maroons broke out the brooms for the first 10 games last winter before being handled by the Bears 83–59 on January 7, 2006 in their conference debut at St. Louis. Their inability to beat the best would haunt the women, who went 6–8 in UAA play for a fifth-place finish while Wash U went on to capture its ninth straight league title and advance to the Sweet 16 at NCAAs.

Despite their highest-ever national ranking and a 57–36 victory over a talented Wheaton (6–5, 1–0 CCIW) squad last Tuesday, the home team still lacked a statement victory on the year. Who better to get it against than the squad that typifies excellence in the UAA?

“It’s a great confidence builder for goods just because they’re the dynasty that is Wash U,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “You need to win at home in this league, so in a lot of ways we just did what we were supposed to do. But it means something to our kids. We get to think, ‘Hey, we can play with these guys.’”

They had a golden opportunity against the Bears, and the Maroons did not intend to waste it. It was obvious from the get-go that both teams had come to play on the defensive end. They managed a combined 8 offensive rebounds out of 40 total boards in the first half, and virtually every shot on the inside was contested. Chicago locked down under its own basket behind the strength and presence of tough first-year forward Molly Hackney (eight points, six rebounds, one block, one steal) and nimble third-year guard Nofi Mojidi (14 points, 8 rebounds).

“This team has not won that many games by playing great defense,” Roussell said. “That’s something we’ve been lacking here. Hopefully, this is a sign that that has changed.”

“The key to our defensive success in part is our high energy and intensity. We don’t quit,” Leach said. “I definitely know we can carry this through the rest of our schedule, and I also know that it is something we definitely have to do every game for us to be successful.”

On the offensive end, the Maroons gained a small advantage behind the continued emergence of first-year backup point guard Jamie Stinson, whose floor generalship kept the Bears off balance. Wash U second-year forward Jaimie McFarlin went four-for-five from the floor to keep her squad in it, but the visitors lost ground when teammate fourth-year center Rebecca Parker missed four shots from the charity stripe. At the same time, the Bears’ defensive focus on the paint left Leach, Stinson, and fourth-year guard Korry Schwanz open for some big treys late in the first half that let Chicago enter the locker room up 31–24.

The fans were on their feet and hoping for sweet revenge as Mojidi scored two quick layups less than a minute into the second to put the Maroons up by 11, but any hopes for a blowout were quickly extinguished as Parker and classmate guard Jenny Southworth heated up to ease the burden on McFarlin. The Bears broke off a 10–2 run behind their inside shooters, and Chicago would not lead by more than five the rest of the way through.

Fortunately, in a back-and-forth battle, third-year forward Nicaya Rapier rose to the challenge by scoring eight points and pulling down five boards after being held scoreless in the first 20 minutes. Her punishing penetration in the paint kept the game just out of Wash U’s reach.

“I struggled offensively in the first half, but I just tried to not let it affect me negatively. In that situation, you just have to remain focused and not get frustrated,” Rapier said. “In the second half, I was more calm, relaxed, and just took what they gave me. I think that when we played aggressively and attacked them, we were able to score. There is no room for timidity in conference play.”

With one play, McFarlin made it a 50–48 game with just over two minutes remaining. Rapier nailed her fourth bucket in the paint with 50 seconds left to give the Maroons a four-point cushion, but Bears’ second-year guard Jill Brandt stroked a trey 16 seconds later to bring her team within one. After Stinson failed to convert on a free-throw opportunity with 29 seconds left, Leach earned Chicago a second chance to nail down the win when she forced Southworth to foul her with just a few ticks still on the clock.

“When I stepped up to the free throw line, I was extremely focused, and the only thing that was going through my mind was that they were both going in,” Leach said.

Though the third-year was a 61.5 percent free-throw shooter entering the game and can be a little inconsistent at the line, she calmly put both shots in the hoop. Game over.

“Saturday showed the heart and competitiveness of this team,” Roussell said. “We didn’t play flawless, but we just battled. We rebounded, got loose balls, and got a great defensive effort. It was tough that either team has to lose this game, but I definitely felt that we deserved to win.”

McFarlin led all comers with 15 points on the game, while Mojidi paced the Maroons with 14. Rapier and Parker tied for the afternoon high in rebounds with nine apiece.

There will be little chance for the women to savor the taste of victory, as Chicago heads up the road tonight for one last non-conference bout against MSOE (5–7 as of January 5). The Maroons will be on the road again this weekend with a Friday night fight against Emory (7–5, 1–0) and a Sunday showdown versus Case (8–4, 0–1).