The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Unless women’s basketball can find a way out of its current tailspin, they may land with quite a thud at season’s end.
Two weeks ago, the Maroons (17–5, 6–5) suffered their first loss of the year; the 75–66 decision to then 12th-ranked NYU ended a 16-game winning streak. The reality check from the Violets came just days after the USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ Poll ranked Chicago the best in DIII, and the more reliable d3hoops.com standings placed them fourth. Since the showdown with NYU, the South Siders have dropped four of their last five contests. This weekend’s split against league minnows Case (9–13, 0–9) and Emory (9–13, 3–8) at Ratner showed few signs that the lineup would be able to rediscover its old form.
Friday night’s matchup with Case served as a reminder that there’s no such thing as an easy win in the UAA. Even with third-year forward Nofi Mojidi notching a double-double with 12 points and 17 rebounds and second-year guard Alex Leach coming off the bench for 16 points, the Maroons couldn’t pull away from their visitors for the 71–60 victory until the final minutes of the contest.
After some early lead changes, Chicago started to gain some momentum and built up a seemingly comfortable 11-point lead with three minutes remaining in the first half thanks to a flurry of free throw shots and a layup from Leach. A late surge from Spartans fourth-year Dana Dempsey cut down on the Maroons’ breathing room, though, as the guard nailed back-to-back three-pointers and added a layup for good measure. Going into the break the squad saw its lead begin to slip away, holding only a five-point advantage at 36–31.
While the Maroons managed to stay on top for the rest of the game, the Spartans made the last 20 minutes interesting, pulling to within one point at 40–39 just four minutes into the half. The home side responded to the threat by building back an 11-point cushion with 7:43 remaining, thanks to an 18–8 run headed by Leach and first-year Jill DiNucci, but the Spartans once again sprang back to life as the clock ticked down.
Led by Dempsey once again, the Spartans put themselves in position for the comeback, down by four at 64–60 with three minutes left. Adding to the tension of Case’s resurgence was Leach’s early exit from the game after she hit the floor hard and tweaked her ankle, leaving Chicago to try and shut the door on Case without its leading scorer on the night. It took one more run, a 7–0 effort capped off by fourth-year guard Korry Schwanz sinking two from the line, for the Maroons to lock it up.
A large part of the South Siders’ trouble in handling Case stemmed from poor shooting from three-point distance, with Mojidi hitting Chicago’s only trey in nine attempts with three minutes to go in the game. While the squad managed better accuracy from beyond the arc Sunday against Emory, a host of bigger problems allowed the Eagles to steal a 69–63 win on Senior Day at Ratner. Holes in the defense, 25 turnovers, and missed opportunities on easy buckets allowed the visitors to set the pace for the entire game and had Chicago scrambling to stay in the game.
Seeking revenge for the 81–50 pounding they received in Atlanta on January 12, Emory leaned heavily on point guards fourth-year Beth Bergmann and second-year Erica Kaplan, and the two responded. The backcourt mavens had little trouble driving to the basket to put 25 and 21 points up on the scoreboard. While Mojidi and Schwanz answered with 17 points apiece, Emory found ways to contain the squad’s top scorers. Mojidi’s speed in the key for lightning-quick layups couldn’t cut through the wall of Eagles, while Schwanz—the squad’s most consistent and prolific three-point shooter—went just one-for-seven from downtown.
“To their credit, they got what they wanted, and we never forced them into uncomfortable situations,” head coach Aaron Roussell said.
With those two shut down for stretches at a time, the Maroons got a big lift from the bench with Leach and DiNucci contributing 10 and 11 points to keep the squad in the running. The rookie flashed dead-on accuracy on jumpers from the free-throw line all day, and one of her patented shots shaved Emory’s lead down to a manageable three points at 50–47 with 8:38 to go.
“She has really stepped up,” Roussell said. “She brings that mid-range jumper that’s just about as consistent as it gets.”
Leach, returning after Friday night’s injury scare, followed DiNucci’s basket with the tying trey, and for a moment it looked like Chicago would overcome the 23 turnovers that converted into easy points for the Eagles.
Unfortunately, the squad’s chance to turn the tables on Emory quickly slipped away as the defense failed to contain Bergmann and Kaplan in the final six minutes. Striking for nine and six points mostly from the line, the duo kept the Eagles ahead of the Maroons even as Mojidi delivered two shots from way beyond the arc in the last minute. The comeback incomplete, the final buzzer went off with Chicago down by six.
“It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t get a win for our seniors, but their goal isn’t to win that last home game,” Roussell said. “They want to get to the tournament.”
From here, the South Siders hit the road to finish out the year. They start out with showdowns against sixth-ranked Rochester (18–4, 7–4) and Carnegie Mellon (8–14, 2–9) this weekend before tackling 17th-ranked Wash U (17–5, 9–2) in the season finale at St. Louis. While a postseason appearance may no longer be in the cards for the Maroons with NYU likely to take the UAA and Chicago losing a shot for a playoff bid, there’s still some time for the team to pick up the pieces from the current 1–5 skid to close out 2006–2007 on a high note.
“We’re doing a lot of things really well in practice, and it’s just not transferring to games,” Roussell said. “We need to be ready when the ball goes up Friday night, and I fully expect us to come out with that old fire again.”