While this sports year has featured more than its share of underdog shockers, Saturday night's women's basketball match-up at Henry Crown was not one of them. The Washington University of St. Louis Bears, who are 12-0 on the season, maintained their grip on Division III's top spot by handing the Maroons a decisive 78-51 setback. The loss dropped Chicago to a 5-6 record, back below .500 for the first time since early December and was the team's first loss in the UAA.
In the waning moments of the first half, the Maroons appeared to be steering the momentum away from Washington with a newfound aggressiveness that seemed to surprise the Bears. Down 14-34, Chicago managed an 11-3 run in the final four minutes to cut its half-time deficit to 12 points.
A strong start at the beginning of the second half would have meant a whole new ballgame, but Washington hit its first four shots out of the gate, erasing the hard fought first half gains and probably stalling any possibility of a miracle finish.
First-year guard Janae Winner and third-year guard Paula Lepka shared the team lead in scoring on the night with 11 points each. Winner was 3-8 from beyond the arc, and Lepka hit both of her three-point attempts. One notable element of Chicago's resistance was the team's only active senior Jaimie Bleck. While she failed to score, Bleck was constantly in the face of her opponents and nabbed six of the team's 31 rebounds, three of which were on the offensive side of the court.
In the end, the Maroons' game had three major problems. The first of these was a lack of accuracy. While the team shot selection was reasonable considering Washington's stifling defense, Chicago still shot just 31 percent from the field and couldn't capitalize on its opportunities underneath the basket.
Another problem was turnovers. The Bears blocked six shots, five of which came in the second half, and managed eight steals, while the Maroons managed only a single steal. Even more difficult to deal with was Washington's well-executed full court press, which either created turnovers on its own or significantly reduced the amount of time Chicago had to create a play.
The last problem was the team's inability to break into the paint and create more lay-up opportunities. Many successful basketball offenses are based on rapid ball rotation around the perimeter. According to head coach, Jennifer Kroll, the Maroons are no exception. The goal of this strategy is to catch the opponents off guard as they chase the movement of the ball, hopefully leaving enough of a gap in the defense to allow for a pass inside. The trouble with a powerful team like Washington was that it left very few defensive gaps for the Maroons to exploit and even succeeded in disrupting Chicago's ball movement.
"We did not play poorly overall against Washington. We played good defense for probably 25-30 minutes. But a team like Wash will exploit those 10-15 minutes when you let up," said Kroll.
Despite not sneaking away with what would easily have been the upset of the season, Kroll had some encouraging words for her young team, "I give my team credit for playing hard against, and challenging, a team that is on a different level. I am pleased, because, from the last time we played to [Saturday's] game, we have gotten better, and that 's exactly what I have asked [my team] to do."
With a grueling weekend road trip that will pass through both Emory on Friday and Case Western Reserve on Sunday, the Maroons' schedule unfortunately does not get any easier. The team is still hoping, however, to learn from its game against the Bears and return home with its first conference win.