Having lost five of its last six games, the women's basketball team was in need of a jumpstart, and this week may very well have provided it.
The Maroons closed out five games on the road with victories over Carnegie Mellon 57-50 on Friday and Benedictine 69-49 on Tuesday. Chicago's only loss of the week was a tough contest on Sunday against fourth-ranked Rochester 76-65.
The team's overall record now stands at 7-11 with a 2-5 mark against UAA teams.
Chicago led 25-24 at halftime against Carnegie Mellon, and the second half featured seven lead-changes and seven ties. The Maroons finally began to pull away when second-year forward Susie Gutowski hit two free throws with 3:09 remaining, putting the team up 50-48.
"Carnegie Mellon was a nice win. We've had some trouble finishing, but this time we really turned it on towards the end," Gutowski said.
While the victory over Carnegie Mellon did buck the Maroons' trend of falling late in close games, there were concerns about the margin of victory and level of play against the struggling 3-14 Tartans.
"It obviously felt good to get a conference win on the road. But we didn't show Carnegie our best basketball," said first-year guard Korry Schwanz.
"A win is a win, and we'll take it, especially on the road, but we did not play as well as we did against Rochester," said head coach Jennifer Kroll. "We shouldn't have been in that close a game. We played down to their level."
The Rochester game was a major step forward for the Maroons. Down by six at halftime, the Maroons took a 42-41 lead on a jumper by Schwanz with 17:05 remaining in the game and were within two baskets as late as the final seven minutes. It took a late 13-2 run by the Yellowjackets to finally halt the Chicago comeback.
Schwanz led the team in scoring with 25 points, a career high. Fourth-year forward Angel Korer added 16 points, and Gutowski contributed with 11 points and five assists. The Maroons shot 46.6 percent from the field and were only out-rebounded 31-29 against Rochester, who won its 30th straight game at home.
The team was able to take away a number of positives from Sunday's game against the Yellowjackets, who lead the UAA and are expected to contend for the national title.
"We got great games from our post players, and Angel Korer was on fire early in the match," Kroll said. "I've never seen this team play with as much heart as they did on Sunday, especially on a road trip to such a tough venue. You have to give them a lot of credit for digging in."
Gutowski agreed. "We showed them and the rest of the league that you can't take our team lightly. They should be a little more wary coming to our home court this weekend," she said.
The Maroons begin the second half of their UAA schedule tonight in Ratner against the same Yellowjackets. Chicago will get another shot at Carnegie Mellon on Sunday.
"We're expecting to do a lot better against these teams at home," Kroll said. "It's tough when you're traveling and are in a hostile arena, particularly places like NYU or Rochester. We can't rely on just that to give us a win, but it's hard to get rolling when you're on the road."
Kroll added that they hoped to receive more offensive production from the team's bench in these two games. "In the Rochester game, we rode our starters pretty hard, and they weren't getting quality minutes on the bench to fuel up. We ran out of gas," she said. "We're hoping to get more points out of our bench this weekend and avoid that happening again."
Against Carnegie Mellon, the team will be looking to improve in handling the pressure of full court and three quarter press defensive schemes, as well as shutting the down the Tartans on the boards.
The Maroons are hopeful about their final seven games, all of which are against UAA teams.
"You're going to see good basketball over the next few weeks, and a lot of upsets," Gutowski added. "There are a lot of good teams in the UAA, and anyone is capable of winning on any day. We have a stretch of home games, and we hope to capitalize and shake things up in the league."
Schwanz agreed. "We're playing in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. With the exception of the Brandeis game, we've been in every single game so far, but we didn't pull out the big wins. We want to finish those games strong in the second half of conference play and get those big wins."
Aside from Rochester and 10th-ranked Washington, both NYU and Brandeis are in position to crack the top 25, but Kroll noted that the team could not fall back on the UAA's strength as an excuse for the team's sub-.500 league mark.
"I'd rather be in a stronger conference," she said. "I think our record does not reflect our expectations right now. We've had some disappointing losses. We weren't just happy to play against Rochester; that was a disappointing defeat. We weren't just happy to play against NYU; that was a very disappointing defeat."
The victory over Benedictine will be hard to quantify in light of the team's inconsistent season.
"It's nice to get a win, especially over a team that regularly goes to the NCAA tournament, but the fact is, they would have a much tougher time in our conference," Kroll said.
Despite turning the ball over 31 times, the Maroons led by 27 points at three different occasions and only a 30 percent increase in shooting percentage in the second half by Benedictine held Chicago to a 20-point margin of victory. "We expected to win at Benedictine. It felt good to get a win by 20 points, and that might give us the confidence we need to finish strong, but they did not shoot well or crash hard against the boards," Gutkowski said.
Fourth-year guard Paula Lepka and second-year guard Winner both stepped up in the game, scoring 12 points each to pace the Maroons.
After two months of searching, the Maroons may have found the right combination of starters. Gutowski, Winner, Lepka, Schwanz, and Korer have now started nine consecutive games.
"It's not impossible that we'll make another change, but we hope to ride out the season with these five," Kroll said. "Everyone's been playing more consistently. It's easier for people to perform in their roles if they understand their roles."
While the team has been improving its rebounding in recent weeks, it will likely continue to be an area of concern for the Maroons.
"The Brandeis game showed just how important rebounding is," said Schwanz. "We really have been focusing on giving up only one shot on the defensive and crashing hard offensively."
The Maroons were beaten by 19 rebounds in a 19-point defeat at Brandeis's Auerbach Arena two weeks ago. This reversion to their early-season form interrupted a string of games in which the team was very competitive on the glass. They have been within at least five rebounds of their opponents for six out of their last seven, including victories in the battle of the boards against NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and Benedictine.
Not coincidentally, the Maroons have gone 3-4 in those seven games and were highly competitive in three of the four losses.