February 18, 2005

UAA title at stake in final home games for women's basketball

With three games to go, women's basketball hopes to cap its best season in four years with a little postseason action.

The Maroons (14-8, 7-3) host Rochester (14-8, 6-5) on Friday and Carnegie Mellon (4-17, 0-10) on Sunday to finish their home schedule, and will close out the season at 10th-ranked Washington (18-4, 8-3) February 26. Just a game behind UAA co-leaders Washington and 15th-ranked Brandeis (18-3, 8-3), Chicago is still very much in the running for the league title.

Though there are at-large bids available outside of the conference winner's automatic spot, it may be challenging for a team in the rough-and-tumble UAA to earn one.

"It would depend on who the team is," head coach Aaron Roussell said. "If it's Washington, they might get a berth, but we beat up on each other so much in the UAA that it may be hard for anyone else to grab a spot out of second place. If we don't win the league, it will be dicey."

Five teams stand within two games of each other atop the league, including a Rochester squad that was in last place five games in. Since Chicago's 82-74 overtime win at the Palestra on January 23, the Yellowjackets have plowed through the conference for six straight wins.

"There are five teams that could make some noise in the tournament, and as we discovered, Case could be trouble, too," Roussell said. "We really just have to take care of ourselves. If we worry about anything but Friday's game, we could be in trouble."

"Rochester's been playing the best out of all the UAA teams as of late," said third-year forward Susie Gutowski, who leads the team in scoring (14.4 ppg) and rebounding (7.9 rpg). "We can't just show up and play, we need to want it more and play aggressively for 40 minutes—35 minutes isn't going to do it."

The Yellowjackets's tear includes back-to-back home wins over 20th-ranked NYU (17-5, 7-4) and Brandeis. While the Maroons held off Rochester in their earlier meeting on the road, they have yet to face one of Rochester's most dangerous weapons, fourth-year Kelly Wescott.

"She's one of their best," Roussell said. "But they've got a lot of very, very good players. They have six players who can hit the mid-range jumper better than anyone else in the league."

"Westcott is one of the best post players in the league," Gutowski said. "I don't know if she's back up to full speed yet, but she is probably one of the reasons their team has been playing so well lately. It'll be a tough battle."

Rebounding will likely emerge as the key to the game. Rochester's +7.0 rebounding margin puts them among the league leaders, far ahead of Chicago's -0.6. While Gutowski and first-year forward Nicaya Rapier are among the UAA's best on the boards, inconsistency has hurt the Maroons on several occasions this season, most notably in their last defeat. In that 77-9 pounding at the hands of Case Western last Friday, the Spartans had 11 more boards than Chicago, and in a 91-68 loss to NYU January 28, the Violets out-rebounded the Maroons 41-28.

"The winner will be the team that gets after it most," Gutowski said. "Which team runs the floor more, which team is going after the rebounds. If we play with more energy, we'll win."

Sunday's showdown with Carnegie Mellon will likely not prove to be a major stumbling block. The Tartans have not won since December 29, dropping 13 in a row in that span. They managed only 31 points against NYU in a 35-point defeat February 13. However, the Maroons are not expecting a repeat of their last meeting, a 75-32 slaughter in Pittsburgh January 21.

"That was just one of those things. They had just lost a couple of players to injury and were still adjusting to playing without them, and we were really clicking. No one can beat us when we play like that," Roussell said. "I don't anticipate seeing a game like that ever again."

As with Rochester, Chicago will be looking to control this game by beating Carnegie against the boards.

"They're not as big as most of the teams we face, though they're still bigger than us," Roussell said. "We did a great job rebounding against them last time, and if we're on, we should be able to do that again."

The Maroons hope to recapture some of the magic of their earlier nine-game winning streak to break out of a tough stretch. While Chicago handled Emory 65-43 last Sunday, the team has lost four of its last six since the overtime win at Rochester. They have faced quality Brandeis and NYU squads twice each in the past three weeks.

"The way the team is playing hasn't changed so much. We lost against Case because they shot extremely well. We played the same quality of basketball against Emory, and we won because they couldn't shoot as well," Gutowski said. "What we really need to do is come prepared to win and do whatever it takes. We can't not be all about the game."

The team will look to recapture one of its strengths in their final homestand. Through the first 16 games of the season, the Maroons made 43 percent of their three-point attempts. Over the last six, the team has hit just 22 percent of those shots. Despite their recent stumbles, Chicago still only trails Washington in this category among UAA teams.

"We have too many good shooters for this recent streak to continue like this. If anything I am finding ways to get us more outside looks, because I know our kids will start hitting," Roussell said. "Shooting a basketball is an odd skill that can oftentimes come and go, but being back in our gym could help us get back on track. We looked good in practice this week. Hopefully we will reap the benefits Friday."