With a big weekend ahead, the Maroons could have been excused for looking past a streaky Benedictine team. Fortunately, this Chicago squad isn't looking for excuses.
Chicago held the Eagles' leading scorer, first-year forward Tamika Curtis, to four points in an unexpectedly easy 75-42 shutdown Tuesday at Ratner. The Maroons finished off their non-conference schedule with a bang and a seventh consecutive victory, the third-best streak in program history.
"I didn't expect a blowout," said first-year head coach Aaron Roussell. "I thought we were more talented, but they've got some good players on that team. I think there's some credit due to us."
Unlike in recent matchups, the team had no need for a dramatic second-half comeback. Third-year forward Jen Kaiser scored eight points in the game's first nine minutes to lead the Maroons on a 14-1 run and put the home team up 19-6, almost immediately taking any doubt out of the game. Chicago didn't lead by less than double digits for the rest of the night.
"We've been focusing on getting out fast in the first half. We're a good team, but when we come out early, we're a great team," Roussell said. "We played tough defense, pulled down some rebounds, and let the offense take care of itself. It's tough to shut us down for 40 minutes. The fact is, when we've held teams under 30 percent shooting in the first half, we've always won."
Chicago (10-4, 3-0) has struggled in the first 20 minutes of each game in a five-game home stand, trailing Case by nine at the half and Washington by 14 at the break. While strong second-half showings brought them back from the brink in both contests, the tough conference road schedule ahead may not allow the same room for error.
"We were far better than Benedictine, and we could rest on our skill instead of bringing intensity. We've been lacking a first-half fire," said third-year forward Susie Gutowski, who led Tuesday's game with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. "We hadn't played that well at the half, and if they had been a better team, it wouldn't have been a big lead."
Gutowski, one of four Maroons with double-digit scoring totals on the night, recorded her fifth double-double of the year, and racked up assists by finding her guards on the outside while being double-teamed. First-year guard Nofi Mojidi added 13 points, and Kaiser and first-year forward Nicaya Rapier scored 12.
Rapier also had six rebounds in her 16 minutes, right around her surprising season average of 6.9 rebounds in 16.9 minutes per game.
"Nicaya gives us a nice burst of energy coming in as a sub. It's nice to have her to provide the spark," Roussell said.
"No other team we've met so far has a freshman close to being equal to Nicaya or Nofi. We're so lucky to have two potential rookies of the year when most teams don't even have one," Gutowski said.
While Rapier has received credit for strengthening the team on the glass, Mojidi has contributed with tough defense. She also brings the speed of a high-school All-American track star to the team, which she demonstrated by pulling down several easy buckets off fast breaks against Benedictine.
The Maroons now face a critical stretch on the road, with UAA showdowns at Carnegie Mellon (4-10, 0-3) and Rochester (8-5, 1-2) this weekend and at tenth-ranked NYU (12-2, 2-1) and third-ranked Brandeis (13-0, 3-0) the next. The Maroons have not left home since a 63-57 win over Aurora on December 15 made them 5-4 on the year.
"Carnegie has a poor record, but they've come close to knocking off some good teams, and Rochester went to the Final Four last year and has its best player back," said Roussell. "We can't afford to take any UAA road games lightly. It's a whole different world on the road in our conference. Playing at Rochester, especially, it doesn't get any tougher than that."
Carnegie Mellon is on a six-game losing streak, but faced three ranked teams in that time and has dropped several close decisions. Rochester, too, has struggled as of late, dropping three of their last five, but was ranked fifth in the nation in pre-season polls and had won 34-straight games at Gorgen Athletic Center before falling to top-ranked Bowdoin November 20.
A weekend sweep would give the Maroons a nine-game winning streak, the longest such stretch in team history set by the 1980-81 and 1989-90 Chicago squads.
"If we can play the way we've played in the second half, these games will be in the bag. We've got the shooters, and the talent; it's the controllable things like the desire to rebound and play tough and outwork them that we need to bring," Gutowski said.