February 24, 2006

Schwanz, women’s basketball gunning for upset against third-ranked Bears

On the surface, this Saturday’s season finale may not mean as much as it could have. But when rival Wash U comes to town, the significance of the matchup speaks for itself.

The Maroons host the third-ranked Bears (22–2, 12–1) Saturday afternoon for the conference finale, one that will almost certainly mark the end of Chicago’s season as well as the precursor to Wash U’s national championship run. The Maroons (17–7, 6–7) have gone through a rocky UAA schedule: Of seven games against nationally ranked opponents, Friday’s 61–56 win at then-20th-ranked NYU has been the only victory. They enter the game as underdogs—like virtually every team facing the Bears—but they also look to draw on a big shot and comeback that last year dropped Wash U for the first time in 32 series games.

Third-year shooting guard Korry Schwanz hit the critical jumper January 8, 2005, stepping around second-year Nofi Mojidi’s pick and sinking the 18-footer with five seconds left in regulation to send her team to the eventual 70–67 overtime win. That historic upset over the nation’s fifth-ranked team was the clear moment signaling Chicago had arrived. In order to repeat that performance and avoid the last two St. Louis blowouts (80–57 and 83–59), the Maroons are going to be looking for Schwanz to not only step up with a big shot or two but, more importantly, provide the steady foundation that has led her squad all year long.

“It would be nice to give them one back. We beat them last year, so we know we can do it,” Schwanz said. “We didn’t work hard all year to lose our last game in Ratner.”

In every way that the Chicago style of play has become synonymous with overt explosiveness, Schwanz’s biggest strengths don’t immediately stand out. Her outside shooting may light up the scoreboard, but it’s her underrated defense and ability to direct her offense that makes her entire team better.

“Korry’s one kid that’s always going to work incredibly hard, and I think she did this summer and got a lot better,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “She’s also one where the numbers are great, but she also does those things that don’t show up in the box score. She’s always going to play hard and be demanding of herself and teammates. And she’s always going to be the smartest player on the floor out there, no matter who’s playing.”

Though Schwanz lacks the speed and strength of her notably athletic teammates, she has quietly made a case for team MVP this season. Schwanz has again been a dominant offensive threat (15.8 points per 40 minutes), but she has also played significantly cleaner and more consistently. Instead of forcing trey attempts like she often would have before, the team’s co-captain for two years has been much better at capitalizing on the shot and passing opportunities given to her.

As a result, Schwanz’s turnover numbers have dipped from 5.4 and 4.2 per 40 minutes the past two seasons to a 3.6 rate this year, while her assist rates have remained steady at around 3.5. Once as equally prone to a 2-for-10 performance as a lights-out 70-percent day, this season she has hit at least 33 percent of her shots in 20 of 24 games. Her remarkable 46.2 percent three-point shooting not only trumps her previous totals (31.8 in 2003-2004 and 35.2 in 2004-2005), but is also good for first on the conference leaderboard, a full 4.2 percentage points ahead of Wash U veteran-of-all-veterans Kelly Manning.

“We were all a bit more comfortable in our offense this year, so I didn’t really feel like I forced too many shots,” said Schwanz of the improvement. “I worked on shooting a lot in the offseason so when I’ve had open looks this year I’ve felt confident shooting the ball.”

To focus only on her shooting and passing is to miss the big picture, however. The intensely focused Schwanz is a regular in Roussell’s office both before and after practices, studying film and scouting reports. That manifests itself on the court, where she complements her work ethic with the role of directing her team and making sure everyone is in their correct spots. Even in the rare instance where she’s bricking shots, Schwanz still gets in the right position to pick up her own offensive boards and grab a surprisingly high number of steals (26) for someone with only nine personal fouls.

While Chicago will be relying on Schwanz to lead the squad against Manning and a supremely talented Wash U squad, the team will need all weapons firing in order to down the UAA champions. When second-year guard Nofi Mojidi and fourth-year posts Jenn Kaiser and Susie Gutowski are hitting jumpers and layups, they give Schwanz that extra half-second that can mean all the difference to sinking a trey.

Despite losing three starters from last year, the Bears have been the UAA’s most efficient offensive and defensive team this season. Scoring at least a point on over 55 percent of their possessions and with the lowest turnover rate in the league, Wash U combines a talent and work ethic that no other team has.

The game will be the last for forwards Gutowski and Kaiser as well as fourth-year guards Janae Winner, Taryn Holgash, and Rose Kulczycki. To be honored during halftime of Saturday’s 3 p.m. men’s game, this year’s class is largely credited for leading the turnaround from UAA second fiddle to legitimate contender.