February 28, 2006

Manning too much as women’s hoops falls shorts

With the offenses engaged in a blow-for-blow exchange Saturday afternoon, the Maroons knew they were going to need some major firepower to down rival Wash U. Unfortunately for upset-minded women’s basketball, the team was just one weapon short.

Chicago (17–8, 6–8) pushed the UAA champs to the limit, but third-ranked Wash U (23–2, 13–1) was ultimately able to hold the charge at arm’s length and win 87–77 thanks to a pair of show-stopping performances. Bears fifth-year shooting guard Kelly Manning broke the conference record with 39 points on 14-for-27 shooting, creating her own space and hitting leaning and fade-away jumpers with striking ease. Wash U fourth-year power forward Danielle Beehler took advantage of a matchup problem down low for her ninth double-double on the year (20 points and 12 rebounds), but second-year Chicago guard Nofi Mojidi kept the game within reach leading a clean team effort with 26 points, 12 from the free-throw line.

“Those two are the best players in our league—I think that’s fair and safe to say—and they were on,” said head coach Aaron Roussell, whose two-year .660 winning percentage is the current program best. “With some of our injuries and [first-year swingman Alex Leach] playing in the post a little bit instead of guarding Manning, we had a couple of tough matchups.

“We played really well, but a team plays like that, they’re going to be tough to beat.”

High-powered from the start and tied at 16 seven-and-a-half minutes in, Manning hit a layup-and-one to spark a 7–0 Wash U run that threatened to blow the game open. After Roussell’s 30-second timeout got his team reset, Mojidi dropped a three with 10 minutes left in the first half, the first of 13 points in a five-minute span. The explosive sophomore answered each Wash U attack with a drive of her own and put a number of Bears in early foul trouble.

Meanwhile, the visitors continued to click, shooting 50 percent from every nook and cranny of the floor to head into the half with a 47–44 lead. Manning entered the break with 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting, while Mojidi nearly matched her with 21 points of her own.

“We were always told to attack them and to not sit back and wait and see what they were going to do,” said Mojidi, who finished the season with 14.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, and a pair of steals per game. “We wanted to attack and have them figure out what to do. So, I figured I’d drive and try to dish, but every time I drove it seemed like they fouled me.”

The Maroons came out strong in the second half, countering a couple of Beehler layups with a jumper from fourth-year point guard Janae Winner, a pair of Mojidi free throws, and a three from fourth-year forward Jenn Kaiser to tie the game at 51. With 12 minutes left and a three-point lead, Chicago went cold just long enough for the Bears to go on a 14–4 run. Manning and fourth-year guard Katie Benson each had a trey and two-pointer over the stretch.

Down 73–60 with 5:30 left, the Maroons refused to die and took advantage of some of the dirty work Mojidi and Leach had done earlier in the game. Manning and third-year point guard Sarah Schell were both benched with four fouls for significant parts of the last five minutes, and Chicago took advantage of Wash U’s depleted perimeter defense. Third-year shooting guard Korry Schwanz hit two threes, Kaiser added another of her own, and Winner continued her surprising scoring contributions with a jumper to cut the deficit to 77–73 with 2:38 left.

Manning was quickly put back on the floor, and the player-of-the-year candidate hit six free throws down the stretch as Chicago missed some quick shots trying to claw back. Mojidi, playing a career-high 35 minutes, was slowed late by both fatigue and some second-period calf cramps. She finished with just five points in the final 20 minutes, as the Maroons shot only 32.4 percent as a team with a less dynamic and forceful offense than had flashed earlier.

“I wouldn’t say I even ran out of gas. I don’t know if our team was still waiting around to make our move, but it didn’t seem like we were in attack mode as much as we were in the first half,” Mojidi said.

Though unable to completely match Wash U’s arsenal, the Maroons didn’t beat themselves nearly as much as they had the rest of the season. The team finished with only 14 turnovers, and the guards, led by Winner’s six-assist-to-no-turnover performance, had only four turnovers on the game.

“They made us play. When we made mistakes, they made us pay,” Roussell said. “When we did everything right, that was as good of a game as we’ve seen in two years. They had their two studs that played really well, and their other kids hit baskets when they needed to. I was really impressed with how we played and took care of the ball better than we have been, especially our guards.”

The Maroons will miss the significant contributions they’ve enjoyed the past few years from fourth-years Winner, Kaiser, forward Susie Gutowski, and reserve guards Rose Kulczycki and Taryn Holgash. The quintet combined for 40 percent of the team’s points and rebounds this season in addition to over half of the squad’s 403 assists. The first veteran class to graduate from the program since last season’s turnaround, they have set the tone for the hungry and aggressive young players they leave behind.

In some ways this year was a disappointment for the squad, which went a perfect 11–0 in non-conference play but was beaten up by the league’s best teams. Other than a buzzer-beating defeat to Case, all of the Maroons’ losses came to top-25 teams. The frustration most of the time, however, was with the Maroons beating themselves and missing their own high expectations.

Mojidi will be one of the team’s biggest weapons again next season as she continues to grow from raw, explosive talent into a reliable leader. Tenacious on both the defensive and offensive ends, Mojidi’s minutes were often times limited by both her style of play and foul trouble, troubles she managed to avoid this past weekend.

“I always have high expectations, and that’s been the nice thing with this group that they always have high expectations,” Roussell said. “So in some ways you can make the argument that we’re disappointed. But you can also look that we’re in a tough league, and we had close games both ways too. We were about two wins away from getting into the tournament.”

Leach, who showed her versatility in recent weeks by matching up with taller players in the post, also improved as the year went along and was only limited by inconsistency. Both Mojidi and her took advantage of unguarded lanes with a vengeance, and if Roussell can keep Leach at guard, she should be able to take advantage of smaller players relatively easily.

Most of all, the bar has been set, and none of the remaining players is looking to take a step back.

“Our young kids won’t let us take a step back because we’re losing some talent,” Roussell said. “They’ve got some fight, and they’ll improve.”