On paper, the game between Wash U (20–4, 10–3) and Chicago (24–0, 13–0) tomorrow night means little. Chicago has already locked up the conference and an NCAA automatic bid, and barring a devastating blowout loss, Chicago probably won’t move from their #2 rank in the country and #1 rank in the Midwest.
But in the last few years, the Wash U-Chicago rivalry has escalated to an entirely different level. Last year, Wash U made a furious comeback in Chicago, but wound up losing the game as a result of a Morgan Herrick block that sent the Ratner Athletic Center crowd to its feet. In St. Louis, Chicago fought their way to another win, becoming part of an elite and exclusive group of teams that had beaten Wash U in their building. The two rivals met again in the postseason, with the winner advancing to the Final Four. A battle-tested Wash U clamped down defensively and defeated Chicago by five points, Chicago’s first loss in nearly three months. To say that the rivalry is anything but heated would be an understatement.
The Maroons, to head coach Aaron Roussell’s credit, have not strayed from the one-game-at-a-time mentality that has been their motto all season.
“I want to go out and win every game, and this Saturday is no different,” Meghan Herrick said. Meghan Herrick struggled offensively in St. Louis, scoring only two points on 1–6 shooting from the field. However, the one shot she made came at a critical point in the contest, with Chicago up one with less than a minute left on the clock. Chicago went on to win 62–59.
“I mean, as always, it’s one game at a time,” said fourth-year guard Bryanne Halfhill. Halfhill came alive offensively against Wash U, scoring 19 points off 7 of 11 shooting from the field and 5–8 shooting from beyond the arc. “However, this still seems like in the back of my mind that it’s the game, even if it doesn’t mean much for the tournament. It’s more about just winning on senior night and possibly our last home game. I think each of us seniors just wants to do it for the other.”
This Saturday will be Senior Night for Chicago, which ordinarily means that instead of the regular starting lineup, all the fourth-years are given an opportunity to start. This year, however, that just means the Maroons will be trotting out the same starting five they’ve had for two years straight: Meghan Herrick, Morgan Herrick, Taylor Simpson, Bryanne Halfill, and Joann Torres.
“We’ll allow ourselves to get sentimental, maybe after the game,”Roussell said. “I think our kids are just so focused, and I don’t think it’s really hit any of us that the end is near. We’ll make sure we celebrate those guys, but there’s just not the finality of it that we’ve had in other years.”
Chicago will be facing the task of defeating a Wash U team that is both efficient offensively and suffocating defensively. This is mostly credited to coach, Nancy Fahey, who is now in her 26th season with the team, and is unmatched in terms of credentials on the DIII level. Fahey’s teams have won five national titles, including the four straight that Wash U won during a stretch between 1998 and 2001. In that stretch, Wash U posted the second-longest winning streak in NCAA women’s basketball history, at 81 games. Fahey ranks third among all active NCAA coaches ,with a .849 winning percentage.
“She’s just a great coach,”Roussell said. “You know you have to be on your game, you know you have to have your team prepared, you know you have to coach well that game. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her and I’ve enjoyed competing against her. I feel fortunate to have gone against someone like that.”
Although they have a balanced attack, Wash U guard Dani Hoover is the backbone of the offensive. Hoover is a deadly shooter, both from the field and from beyond the arc. Don’t plan on fouling her late, either—Hoover shoots a robust 80 percent from the charity stripe. Wash U has also developed several weapons throughout the year, including first-year forward Melissa Gilkey, who is the only other double–digit scorer for the Bears, with 10.4 points per game.
“They just have a lot of kids that can score. I think that’s scary as an opposing coach,” Roussell said. “It’s not just one or two people that you have to shut down...and that’s difficult to prepare for and difficult to defend.”
With a win, Chicago would also cement an undefeated season, an unprecedented event in Maroon basketball history. Chicago players have deflected questions about an undefeated season all year, saying that it would simply be an extension of focusing and winning each game individually. This game, however, is a little different.
“We really aren’t concerned with having an undefeated season, we’re just focused on winning on Saturday and beating Wash U. We’re looking forward to the game,” said fourth-year guard Bryanne Halfhill. “Even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the tournament, in the big scheme of things, it really means everything to our senior class after last year.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday at Ratner.