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November 18, 2008

Women's basketball lives up to hype with Midway Classic win

[img id="77013" align="alignleft"] Between the lofty expectations and all of the other teams gunning for you, it’s not very easy being ranked 10th in the nation. But for the first weekend of regular season play at least, women’s basketball appeared up to the task.

Playing at home in the 12th annual Midway Classic, the Maroons handled Augsburg (1–1) 68–48 on Saturday, and then got past Chapman (1–1) 72–65 in Sunday’s championship game to claim their fourth consecutive title.

Runner-up Chapman entered this season having made the NCAA tournament eight consecutive years, and the Panthers proved to be as talented as their history suggested. Chapman’s lineup was undersized (their starting point guard, fourth-year Lauren Kamiyama, is only 5-foot-1) but athletic, and from start, the Panthers used a full-court press to capitalize on their speed.

“Chapman’s defensive pressure was something we definitely expected. We understood them to be a very quick, scrappy team,” second-year forward Karly Kasper said. “They pressured the ball extremely hard and were active in trying to get steals and force turnovers.”

Last season, the Maroons often had difficulty beating the press, and too often they lost too much time off the shot clock or lost the ball as they tried to evade aggressive defenders. But against Chapman, Chicago’s press-break looked much improved.

“I was excited for this game because we normally struggle against teams like that. I was proud of how well our kids handled that,” head coach Aaron Roussell said, in reference to Chapman’s press. “There was a couple of bad moments in there, but once we stuck to what did work, I was proud of our kids.”

As the game wore on, the Maroons were more and more effective at passing around Chapman defenders and, after beating the press, taking advantage of their numbers to get open looks. Although the Panthers were up by two at halftime and by seven early in the second half, those easy scoring opportunities allowed Chicago draw even and finally pull ahead with about three minutes to go.

The Maroons’ comeback was also aided by the free throws they made late. Though Chicago hit only two field goals in the last 10 minutes, they made 17 of 22 free throws over that stretch, helping the team lock up their 72–65 victory. On the day, the Maroons outshot Chapman 46–23 from the stripe.

During the second half, Chicago might have built more of a lead had it not been for fourth-year guard Nicole Hayman. Hayman was Chapman’s go-to scorer, burning the Maroons for 27 on the day, although late in the game third-year guard Jamie Stinson began covering her, and Hayman seemed to have more difficulty getting her points.

“Jamie Stinson did a phenomenal job at the end of the game shutting [Hayman] down. I mean she couldn’t get an open look to save her life at the end of the game,” Roussell said. “Jamie’s always been a very good defender, but because of the way they played in their matchups, we just weren’t in a position where we could put Jamie on her for the majority of the game.”

Before they could play Chapman, Chicago had to deal with Augsburg in Saturday’s opening round. The Maroons beat the Auggies 68–48, but at times the game was closer than the final score suggested. Chicago was slow to score early on, and Augsburg was buoyed by the production of second-year guard Shannon Renne, who shot four of six from beyond the arc to keep her team within three at halftime.

After the break, Chicago came out raring to go, and with a barrage of three-balls from fourth-year guard Alex Leach and first-year guard Bryanne Halfhill, the Maroons’ lead swelled to 20 in just over four minutes. The Auggies’ shooters went cold, and though they burned through timeouts trying to slow down Chicago, Augsburg never again threatened.

“I think we just came out a little slow. We’re obviously a young team and we really weren’t used to playing with each other,” Halfhill said. “The first half we just never really got into the flow of the game. Luckily, we were able to pull it together at half time and came out strong in the second half.”

Halfhill is one of the biggest stories for Chicago coming out of the opening weekend. Just a first-year, Halfhill lead the Maroons in scoring with 20 points against both Augsburg and Chapman and was named the Midway Classic MVP for her efforts. Halfhill was most dangerous from three-point range, where she was 8–15 during the tournament.

Halfhill was by no means Chicago’s only contributor. Leach had 15 points in Saturday’s game, three other players scored in double-digits on Sunday, and second-year forward Anna Woods had 10 rebounds Saturday and nine on Sunday.

Getting production from such a range of players should serve the Maroons well as the season goes on.

“These are the kinds of efforts we need from everyone on our team,” Roussell said. “I think if we do that, we’re going to be in really good shape.”

The Maroons return to the court Saturday afternoon when they meet Carroll (4–3).