There is a rule that guides recruiters, scouts, coaches, and everyone else involved with analyzing the sport of basketball at every level: you can't teach size. The Maroons learned this lesson the hard way, losing the first game of their season at the Midway Classic against UW-River Falls.
Chicago rebounded to win the consolation game of the tournament against Whittier on Sunday.
River Falls center Ellen Effle scored 20 points and grabbed ten rebounds in shouldering the load for her squad, which won by a final score of 72-63.
"She had a career night against us," said Chicago head coach Jennifer Kroll of Effle's performance. "She went on a tear against us. We just didn't come out ready defensively. [UW-River Falls has] come farther than we have as far as understanding the system."
After a back-and-forth first half, UW-River Falls took a 31-30 lead on a runner by forward Amber Sickels in the waning moments. Sickels half-shot, half-tossed the ball from the top of the key as the buzzer sounded to give her team a morale boost going into the locker room.
The second half was more of the same until the last five and a half minutes of the game. Chicago took its last lead, 57-54, on a layup and a free throw on a subsequent play by third-year forward Lauren Colletti. After that, the visitors took over. They went on a 10-0 run that put them up for good. Effle and her teammates never looked back.
"We're still getting to know one another," Kroll said. "We had quite a few more people playing [on Saturday]. Saturday we turned the ball over a lot--we made a lot of unforced errors."
But things turned around for the Maroons when they faced Whittier the following day. First-year Susan Gutowski, who was second on her team against River Falls with 12 points, scored 16 more to help Chicago to victory.
"She came up big for us; she made the all-tournament team," Kroll said. "She's definitely quick, a really talented athlete."
Chicago was in control for most of the game after a 9-0 run keyed by the play of Gutowski and third-year Paula Lepka made the score 18-9. The final score of 53-46 was misleading; Chicago surrendered a flurry that let Whittier back into the game as the last minutes ticked off the clock.
Lepka and her fellow veterans, fourth-year starters Laura Hebel and Jaimie Bleck, helped the team to victory with strong defense and fundamentals. Hebel also contributed two three-pointers as bookends to the first half.
Kroll stressed the importance of fundamentals to Chicago's win on Sunday. "We focused Sunday on boxing out, containing penetration," she said. According to the coach, those were the keys to Sunday's win.
Getting the first victory under their collective belt encouraged both the team and Kroll, who said she was satisfied with the start to the season. She felt that the UW-River Falls game was a good match for the competition in the conference.
"On Saturday we were playing a team in a similar conference, as far as competitive level," she said. She pointed out that Washington University (Mo.) is a perennial favorite to win the national championship, and that the UAA is filled with challenging opponents.
"We can't be competitive in the conference without being competitive nationally," Kroll said.
The Maroons will play six more games before they break for the holidays, then return early to prepare for a game against Kalamazoo on January 3. They start their conference games eight days later against Wash U.
"We look at it as two seasons. We have our non-conference schedule to prepare us for our conference games," said Kroll of managing the schedule split over winter break.
The team will be largely restricted over winter break, and between its workout program and its non-conference schedule, will return ready to take on its conference foes in January in hopes of earning an automatic tournament bid.
Strong play by first-years and other newcomers will be crucial to the team's success, since it has only a small core of veterans. Susan Gutowski has given them a good start in that department.