SPORTS

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March 6, 2008

Women’s basketball set to seize NCAA chance

At 6 p.m. tonight, in Stevens Point, WI, the women’s basketball team will put on their warm-ups, lace up their high tops, and get ready to go dancing. After staying home during March for 12 straight years, the Maroons have finally played their way back into the NCAA tournament, the “Little Dance.”

It didn’t always look likely, and it took some inspired play down the stretch, but Chicago found a way to win the UAA championship and pick up an NCAA berth in the process. The 23rd-ranked Maroons (20–5) take on St. Thomas (20–7) in tonight’s first-round game, and if they win that, they will face the winner of this evening’s matchup between 25th-ranked St. Norbert (21–4) and 13th-ranked UW–Stevens Point (24–4).

To get past St. Thomas, Chicago will have to neutralize the Tommies’ inside-outside combo of fourth-year forward Carrie Embree and third-year guard Jessica Katch. The two average better than 14 points and seven boards apiece, with Katch chipping in four assists and three steals a game, as well.

Shutting down Embree will require Chicago to look to its post players, who have turned in several big performances lately. Two weekends ago, they held Jessica McEntee, NYU’s third-year forward who led the UAA in points and rebounds, to numbers well below her season averages. Second-year Anna Woods has come on especially strong in recent weeks. The forward has scored double digits in three of her last four outings and had a double-double against Wash U last Saturday.

“All of our post players have been playing well,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “I think Embree is going to be a little bit different, maybe a little bit bigger than the other players we’ve gone up against this year. We’re going to have our hands full, but I fully trust our post players to come out and have a good performance.”

Guarding Katch, the Tommies’ other main threat, will test the Maroons’ ability to deal a multifaceted player. The versatile Katch is a solid shooter, but at 5-foot-11 she has the size to score inside or grab rebounds.

“She is one of the more complete players I’ve seen at our level,” Roussell said of Katch. “She does everything. She scores, she rebounds, she gets assists, steals. She’s a very complete player.”

If Chicago can handle the Tommies tonight, it will turn around and play St. Norbert or Stevens Point less than 24 hours later, which makes preparation tricky. Roussell said some of the assistant coaches were scouting the possible second-round contests, but he and the team weren’t thinking about those games yet.

“Our kids don’t know anything about the two teams on the other part of our bracket, and they haven’t really gotten into the St. Thomas stuff,” Roussell said. “We kind of just focused on ourselves early in the week, and then a little bit yesterday watched some film on St. Thomas, and hopefully we’ll be ready for them.”

Should the Maroons end up playing the Pointers Saturday, they will be up against some of their stiffest competition all year. Stevens Point’s top scoring threat, fourth-year guard Haley Houghton, averages almost 13 points a game and shoots close to 45 percent from beyond the arc. Keyed by her shooting, the Pointers took two out of three this season over UW–White Water, a team that beat Chicago in December.

“I think they’re going to be a great team. They’re hosting, which means people think they’re better than we are,” Roussell said of the Pointers. “They won one of the best leagues out there,” he added, referring to Stevens Point’s championship in the MIAC tournament.

The other team in the pod is St. Norbert, which won the Midwest Conference to clinch an automatic bid to the postseason. The Green Knights run a smaller lineup and have no big time scorer or rebounder. The Maroons would likely look to forwards like fourth-year Nicaya Rapier and second-year Molly Hackney to take advantage of their size and athleticism down low.

To beat any of the teams in their pod, the Maroons need to make the most of their depth, their speed, and their rebounding prowess—strengths they have relied upon all year.

“You get 25 games into it and you are who you are,” Roussell said. “If we do the things that we’ve excelled at, if we do the things that have gotten us to this point, if we do those well on Friday, then we’ll be in good shape.”

Second-year guard Jamie Stinson echoed her coach’s words.

“Running and transition have been big advantages this year,” she said. “I know that we are looking to run in any games we have left.”

In the midst of all the strategy and scouting reports, though, the Maroons still seem aware of what a rare opportunity they have. That Chicago has not made the tournament since 1995 is a testament to the difficulty of getting there, and the team looks primed to capitalize on its position.

“I definitely plan on leaving everything I have out on the floor,” said fourth-year guard Nofi Mojidi. “I already knew that we were national competitors but now I’m just excited to show others in the nation how good we truly are.”