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February 19, 2010

Weekend games could bolster women’s basketball's shot at UAA championship

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Any students suffering from early-onset eighth week anxiety—“Can I make it through the end of the quarter? And can all the work possibly be worth it?”—should look to the women’s basketball team for some living proof that hard work pays.

The Maroons (17–5, 9–2 UAA) began UAA play with three losses, each to an excellent team but each a potential liability come Selection Sunday. Now, they’ve won nine of their last 10 (and dropped the 10th in OT), and this weekend, if they can beat two teams they’ve already beaten, the Maroons could nearly lock up an NCAA bid.

The standard line is that all conference games are tough, and wins should never be assumed. The fact is that neither of the two teams visiting this weekend—Carnegie (9–13, 2–9) tonight and Case (12–10, 3–8) Sunday—ought to beat Chicago, and if the Maroons keep playing like they have for much of the past month, come Sunday afternoon they’ll have put themselves in a very promising position.

As always, there are reasons to be cautious. Case has four of the UAA’s top eight scorers, including 5-foot-10 Caitlin Henry, who gets listed as a forward on box scores but torched Chicago on 4-of-5 shooting from behind-the-arc when the teams last met. Henry had 20 points in that game, to go along with 21 points from fellow-forward Erin Hollinger.

“You can make an argument that those two post players [Henry and Hollinger] are basically guards for them,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “They can do some things at the basket and away from the basket that not a whole lot of other players in our league can do.”

While stopping Case will be a matter of minimizing those defensive mismatches, Carnegie should pose exactly the opposite problem: The Tartans are coming to Ratner hoping to beat the Maroons at their own game. Their starting backcourt is packed with a trio of six-footers including forward Rachelle Roll, who hauled in 39 rebounds in last weekend’s two games.

“[Carnegie has] been out-physicaling and out-rebounding teams, and that’s something we normally do,” Roussell said. “I think they’ll be very eager to show what they can do.”

But whatever strengths Case and Carnegie can boast, Chicago still beat both of them back in January, and both opponents have recently snapped out of long losing streaks.

There’s no question these are winnable games, and this is a perfect time for Chicago to get two more wins. With just over a week left until the NCAA brackets are released, Chicago is sitting fourth in the Central Region rankings, behind Illinois Wesleyan, Carthage, and Wash U (20–2, 10–1). Rounding out the fifth and sixth spots in the rankings (only six teams are ranked in most regions) are UW–Whitewater and UW—Stevens Point.

At least three of those six teams will lose between now and then the tournament, since Wesleyan and Carthage have to play in the CCIW tournament, Whitewater and Stevens Point have to play in the WIAC tournament, and Chicago and Wash U play a week from tomorrow.

It’s almost as likely that three of the teams (probably the three that win out) will get automatic bids, eliminating them from the running for at-large bids. Long story short, besting Wash U next Saturday might earn Chicago the UAA’s postseason berth; if it doesn’t, or if the Maroons don’t avenge their January drubbing in St. Louis, wins today and Sunday would give the team a great shot at an at-large bid.

It’s been hard work and consistency throughout most of the UAA season that’s brought Chicago this far and put them in such a good situation. And if the Maroons can put in a little more work this weekend, it could have them going a whole lot further.