January 23, 2007

Women in first after stinging Rochester

Despite getting off to an undefeated start and dominating their opponents through the season’s opening stages, women’s basketball still had something to prove going into their Sunday clash with second-ranked Rochester. For all they had accomplished, the Maroons had yet to face a team currently ranked in the top 25 and still had to prove they could hang with the UAA’s best.

With a big win in a clash of conference titans, the Maroons did more than answer their critics; they put themselves on the fast track to the UAA championship.

Coming on the heels of a 91–49 thrashing of Carnegie Mellon (6–10, 0–5) Friday, the Maroons (16–0, 5–0) jumped out to a double-digit lead early against the Yellowjackets (14–2, 3–2), then held on down the stretch to down the visitors 67–60 and move into sole possession of first place in the league. The win was a major breakthrough in the squad’s quest to reach the postseason and rack up the hardware, and it will serve as an excellent confidence boost midway through the season.

“Inevitably you’ve got to feel pretty good about it,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “Our players need to realize they’ve gotten here because they’ve worked so hard, and they need to keep at it.”

When the Maroons went 10–0 in non-conference games last season, the team had their hopes high. However, when the crucial conference games started, Chicago immediately suffered several losses and fell to the bottom half of the UAA rankings. The Maroons showed Sunday that this season, when the going gets tough, they can turn up the heat.

While some of the luster for Sunday’s match-up was lost when Rochester dropped its first game of the season Friday at Wash U, the Yellowjackets still entered the game with a lofty number-two national ranking and dreams of a UAA title dancing in their heads.

Breaking the game open early, Chicago capitalized on a strong defensive effort and hot shooting to stun the visitors and build a sizable lead. The Maroons’ offensive nucleus of fourth-year Korry Schwanz, first-year Molly Hackney, second-year Alex Leach, and third-year Nofi Mojidi all scored as part of a 10–0 run starting at the 14:10 mark of the second half that pushed Chicago’s lead to double digits for the first time. The home side twice stretched the lead to 16 before heading into the break up 35–20.

Taking advantage of a mismatch in the low post, Hackney had a big first half for Chicago, going for nine points, four rebounds, and a blocked shot as Rochester was unable to come up with an answer to the rookie’s quick dribble and polished inside game.

If there was one obvious chink in the Maroons’ armor in the first period, it was their susceptibility to turning the ball over. After handing over possession to Rochester 13 times in the first half, the South Siders continued their careless ballhandling after intermission. It was only a matter of time before the opportunistic Yellowjackets would start converting them into easy baskets.

The home team’s lead reached its high-water mark at 47–25 with 13:24 to play, but from that point onward until the final minutes, it was all Rochester. Hammering the Maroons with trey after trey and keyed by 13 second-half points from fourth-year guard Megan Krebbeks, Rochester slowly but surely whittled away at the deficit. The visitors went on a 33–16 run and eventually cut the seemingly insurmountable 22-point deficit to five, at 63–58 with 1:02 remaining.

“The good thing for us is we had built a 22-point lead. Rochester is such a good team that we knew they were going to try to make a run at us,” Roussell said.

The situation was familiar for Roussell, who told the team in a time-out that Rochester, albeit with a closer margin, had run away with the game in the last five minutes in the two teams’ most recent meetings.

“With those words in mind, we knew that wasn’t going to happen again,” Mojidi said.

And they didn’t. The South Siders gathered their forces, turned up the defense, and hit their foul shots to finish with a thrilling win.

“We weren’t going to sit around and let them dictate what was going; we were going to be aggressive,” said Mojidi, who scored 19 points and helped keep her team on top in the final minutes with determined drives to the basket.

“We knew they were second in the nation coming in, but we weren’t going to let that get to us. There was a target on their backs—they had more to lose.”

In addition to Mojidi’s game-high scoring total, Leach tallied 15 points, while Hackney submitted a monster line of 14 points, seven boards, and two blocks. Schwanz chipped in with 12 points on four-for-nine shooting. In a game in which Chicago’s starters scored all but three of the squad’s field goals, first-year Jamie Stinson came off the bench to spark the squad with six rebounds.

With the Maroons relying so heavily on their starting five Sunday, Friday’s blowout was all the more significant as it allowed Roussell to rest Mojidi, Hackney, and co. in the second half and give less-used players some valuable UAA minutes and build confidence.

Losers of 51 straight conference games going into the Beach Night battle, the Tartans weren’t expected to put up much of a fight. Adding to Carnegie’s misery, the Maroons dominated in a 91–49 rout, much to the excitement of the “Beach Night” crowd that packed the house for the Friday night game. True to form, the Maroons dominated from the opening tip and built up a 46–31 halftime lead that could have been even bigger.

“We just tried to buckle down a little bit at half time,” Roussell said.

And buckle down they did. The Maroons started the second half on a furious 36–3 run that lasted more than 10 minutes, by which point the only question was whether or not Chicago would double its opponent’s score.

Playing the Tartans also allowed Roussell to give his bench players quality game time, and they used it well.

“It was the best game our bench has played this year—both offensively and defensively,” Roussell said.

Playing in front of her newly-christened fan section behind the home team’s bench, Stinson submitted one of the top performances of her career, contributing 10 points, three rebounds, and three assists. Third-year guard Lori Tanaka made use of her new increase in playing time to add 14 points, while first-year forward Jill DiNucci continued to make an impact, chipping in with 10 points and five boards.

The wins over the weekend, coupled with a losses from then–number one Bowdoin (17–1) and then–number one Hope (15–2), helped bump the Maroons up to fourth in the latest poll released Monday night, and for the first time in program history, the Maroons received first place votes (four).

Despite the triumphant homecoming at Ratner, the Maroons’ challenges are far from over. In the rough-and-tumble UAA, where there is a nationally-ranked program lurking on every corner, the road to the championship invariably involves tough wins in visiting gymnasiums. When the women go on the road later in the season, they will be persona non grata on courts thirsty for revenge. The Maroons will need to stay focused this weekend, when they face Brandeis and NYU in their last two games against UAA competitors on home turf.

“It’s still all pretty new to us,” Mojidi said. “It’s kind of like we’re all pretty shocked.... Now we’re winning, and we don’t really know what’s next.”