February 16, 2010

Women's basketball's road wins keep UAA title within reach

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Women’s basketball’s mission is simple: Win every game in order to preserve a chance of winning the conference championship and advancing to postseason play. There is no margin for error.

Fortunately, the Maroons (17–5, 9–2 UAA) made few mistakes in sweeping their final road trip of the regular season with a 73–52 win over NYU (13–9, 5–6) and a 49–47 victory against Brandeis (13–8, 6–5).

The pair of wins keeps Chicago on a collision course with seventh-ranked Wash U (20–2, 10–1). If the Maroons can defeat both Carnegie (9–13, 2–9) and Case (12–10, 3–8) next weekend, they will meet the Bears at Ratner on February 27 with at least a share of the UAA title on the line.

First, though, Chicago had to negotiate a tricky visit to the East Coast. After comfortably defeating both Emory and Rochester one weekend earlier, the Maroons looked in the mood for another romp early on against NYU. Chicago started the game with a 10–0 run, but the Violets came back to lead by as many as five before the Maroons closed out strong and took a 32–25 advantage to the break.

While the hosts managed to contain Chicago’s offense somewhat in the first half, they could not keep it under wraps in the second. The Maroons boosted their field goal percentage from 44.4 to 48.5 percent and made six of seven second-half free throw attempts as opposed to just four of nine in the first period. As a result, Chicago scored 41 points in the second half and won by 21.

At this point in the season, every team has a clear identity and can do little to change it. This was especially true for Chicago this weekend. Throughout the season, Chicago has been a balanced team that could be led in scoring by any number of different players depending on the game.

Against NYU, prolific fourth-year post Molly Hackney turned in a characteristically solid effort with 15 points, but it was Chicago’s reserves that made the difference. Fourth-year guard Micaela White, second-year forward Taylor Simpson, and first-year guard Jenna Lillemoe combined for 48 points off the bench. That helped compensate for the struggles of second-year guard tandem Bryanne Halfhill and Meghan Herrick, who together average 19 points per game but scored just five against the Violets.

“I think that it must be extremely hard for other teams to prepare for us because we consistently have different people stepping up every game,” Hackney said.

Theories are not always airtight, though, and Brandeis proved it is possible to successfully show a new look in midseason. The Judges employed a zone defense against Chicago that created problems for the visitors.

“They came out in a zone, which is somewhat uncommon for the way that they play,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “We had some shots, but we just didn’t hit them.”

Chicago’s offensive difficulties made them rely even more heavily on two of their other strengths: defense and rebounding. The Maroons held Brandeis to just 34-percent shooting, which is actually 2 percent above Chicago’s stingy season average, and supplemented that with a 42–27 edge on the boards.

“We have seen success when we dominate on the boards, so we do a lot of rebounding drills in practice and focus on getting to every board in the games,” Hackney said.

Defense and rebounding helped the Maroons grind out a close 49–47 victory in a game where neither team led by more than seven at any point. Halfhill led all scorers with 19 points, including three free throws in the final minute to put the Maroons ahead.

Chicago plays its final three games at home, with Carnegie (9–13, 2–9) and Case (12–10, 3–8) coming to town this weekend.