For the Chicago Maroons, the University Athletic Association is truly a double-edged sword. As the most talented and competitive conference in Division III, the UAA is doing a great service to Chicago basketball by providing a young and still-maturing team with high-quality experience and many chances to see how winning basketball ought to be played. In the long term, the Maroons can use this season to get a head start on future competition.
In the short term, however, playing in the UAA isn't exactly the biggest confidence booster. The other members of the conference are responsible for handing Chicago some disappointing losses, including two at home this weekend against Carnegie Mellon, 55-52, on Friday and Rochester, 68-56, on Sunday. The team's only win of the week came against non-conference rival Benedictine on Tuesday when the Maroons decisively stopped a three game losing streak, blowing out the Eagles 75-60. Chicago is now 1-4 in the UAA and 7-9 overall with nine games remaining in the season.
Players and coaches alike viewed the closer loss to Mellon as the more frustrating of their contests, and rightly so. This was a game the Maroons should have won, but, as in previous games, they struggled when it came time to put their opposition away. In the first half, Chicago shot a solid 65 percent from the field and hit six of seven free throws. First-year Janae Winner had already racked up 12 of her 19 points, and the Maroons were threatening to pull away with a 13-point lead at halftime.
For young teams in particular, halftime can be the most dangerous time to have the lead. The time away from the court can both disrupt momentum and give opposing teams the chance to make the adjustments they need to turn a game around. If the opponents are more mature, they will be better at maintaining their focus and chipping away at a substantial deficit. Unfortunately for Chicago this is exactly what happened.
The Maroons' second-half shooting fell to an icy 31 percent, and costly turnovers mounted. Carnegie Mellon stole the ball a grand total of nine times in the final period. The Mellon defense held Chicago to just five points in the first 10 minutes of the half, and, by then, the lead had all but evaporated.
With seven seconds left to play and Chicago trailing 53-50, third-year Paula Lepka hit a clutch jumper to keep her team in the game. Chicago quickly stopped the clock with a foul, but Mellon buried both free throws right along with any chance of a Maroon miracle.
"They came out and pressured us in the second [half] and we crumbled," explained Chicago head coach Jennifer Kroll. "We are a very talented team, but we need to mature a little. We have to get better at [re]-adjusting quickly as teams adjust to us."
Kroll understands that her team is young, but she refuses to hide behind any excuses. "If a team is going to rise out of adversity it is going to be because of leadership. That is something that we have struggled with.
"I have challenged our captains, fourth-years Jaimie Bleck and Laura Hebel, and third-years Paula Lepka and Angel Korer, to step up and provide consistent leadership vocally. We need for our younger players to see and hear our upperclassmen challenging themselves, and each other, on a daily basis. This team has great potential, but whether we reach that potential this year will be determined by our leadership."
One positive sign is Tuesday's win. While relieved at facing a weaker opponent in Benedictine, the Maroons did not make the fatal mistake that so many teams have made before: playing down to the opposition. Instead the Maroons managed to win both halves, with Winner and Korer putting up an impressive 15 and 14 points respectively.
Chicago will wrap up its home stand this weekend with a 6:00 P.M. game this evening against the always-troublesome NYU and another Sunday afternoon contest against the pride of Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University.