February 27, 2007

Inches from upset, bubble pops for women's hoops

The last time women’s basketball won at St. Louis, Ronald Reagan was president and Saddam Hussein was one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East. Going into Saturday’s game, the Duke of Division III women’s basketball had taken 18 meetings in a row on their home court against Chicago. The South Siders climbed on the bus to make the trip to Missouri knowing that their season was over if they couldn’t break that streak.

Like so much in this season that started off with such promise and ended with so much of it unrealized, it was not to be.

On the bubble and likely needing one more win to make the postseason, the Maroons (18–7, 7–7 UAA) came agonizingly close before dropping an 80–75 decision to 12th-ranked Wash U (20–5, 12–2) in overtime. The visitors built a 13-point lead at halftime and received stellar performances from third-year guard Nofi Mojidi (team-high 19 points) and first-year forward Anna Woods (team-high 11 boards) but were victimized in the second half by the irresistible force of fourth-year center Rebecca Parker (game-high 27 points, 20 boards).

The historic domination of the Field House by the Bears seemed primed to end in the early going Saturday afternoon. In her final appearance in the Maroon and white, fourth-year guard Korry Schwanz nailed two treys in the first three and a half minutes, and Chicago used Mojidi’s speed to the fullest advantage. Wash U’s sophomore sensation forward Jaimie McFarlin was forced to sit down for most of the first with foul trouble, and fourth-year point guard Sarah Schell missed on 7 of 10 from the floor. Woods leapt up for three blocks to limit the damage from Parker and lead a high quality defensive effort.

“Anna has improved a lot over the course of the season. She’s a tough defender down low and has the size to make opposing players change their shot for fear of her blocking it,” Schwanz said. “I think she’ll continue to get even better and be a great post presence next season.”

With Wash U trying to keep the Maroons in control on the inside, second-year guard Alex Leach exploded for two three-pointers and a jumper over 1:10 toward the end of the half. The former starter led her team on a 13–2 run to put the Bears in a 42–29 hole at the break. Chicago was out-shot 41–27 in the first 20 minutes, but hit on 59.3 percent of their attempts as opposed to a mere 29.3 percent mark for their opponents.

“We kind of knew both those numbers were going to come back down to Earth a little bit,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “We felt good about that first half, and hitting on 60 percent is always nice, but you know it’s not going to last.”

Both returned to normal numbers as the second half began. After riding the pine and recording just one point and four rebounds before halftime, McFarlin retook the court with a vengeance and grabbed 10 points and 11 boards total before fouling out with 4:14 to go in overtime. Schell picked her game up as well for 11 second-half points, and with Woods and first-year forward Molly Hackney in foul trouble, Parker ran roughshod over Chicago’s defense. While mostly staying strong, the Maroons gave up a number of offensive rebounds to give the Bears some easy second-chance shots inside.

“We talked a lot during practice last week about how much Wash U depends on their posts and that in order to beat them we would have to limit their baskets. It takes both good defense from the posts and help from the guards to stop good post players and Parker is a tough player,” Schwanz said.

With Leach virtually shut down, Wash U put on run after run. While the Maroons never broke, they never completely eliminated the damage despite six second-half points from first-year point guard Jamie Stinson. Schell knotted it up at 65–all with 3:35 left in regulation and combined with McFarlin for four points in the paint to counter a late burst with Schwanz to tie it at 69 with 47 seconds remaining. Hackney seemingly had it won with less than 15 seconds left, but her layup rimmed out. Wash U couldn’t capitalize on their final possession, and Schwanz’s halfcourt heave came up short to send to the game to an extra period.

Though the depth of Chicago should have given them a leg up in overtime, they were unable to capitalize on it and missed on 8 of 10 from the floor to give the Bears the final edge. The 14-point lead the Maroons built with 19:25 left in the second half was the largest margin blown by Chicago en route to a defeat all year long.

“Their two seniors stepped up, and that’s how you win in this league, Roussell said. “Korry definitely played well for us, but Schell and Parker were sitting there having won nine titles in a row, and they didn’t want to be the ones who let that one go.”

The win allowed the Bears to tie sixth-ranked NYU (23–2, 12–2) atop the league, giving Wash U its 10th straight UAA title and earning them the automatic playoff bid based on tiebreaker criteria. Brandeis (19–5, 9–5), ranked 15th and finishing third, and Rochester (20–5, 9–5), ranked 21st and coming in fourth, will be joining the St. Louisans and the Violets in the tournament. This is the second straight year that four teams from the conference qualified for the NCAAs, and the second straight year that Chicago is on the outside looking in at fifth.

After losing 7 of their final 11 games to go 17–8 with a 6–8 UAA mark in 2005–2006, Chicago came into this winter with a young, talent-rich squad and high hopes of breaking through into the playoff field. Led by the continued stellar play of team leader Schwanz and fast break master Mojidi and the emergence of Hackney as a threat inside, the squad won 16 straight against a tough schedule to open the year and set a new program record. Ranked number one in the coaches’ poll and fourth by, the NCAAs seemed to be this group’s destiny and whispers of a Final Four run began to float around Ratner.

Getting swept at home by Brandeis and NYU started the team’s collapse, and a 69–63 home loss to an inferior Emory (10–15, 4–10) squad two weeks later probably sealed their fate. Coaches across the UAA adjusted well to the South Siders the second time around, and the youth of the team probably worked against them in the closing minutes later in the season, as they struggled to come up with clutch points in the end of big games against the conference’s four playoff teams.

“I think the schedule just caught up to us,” Roussell said. “In all honesty, I think there were times at the end of the year where we were weren’t used to being against some more experienced teams. It’s a very tough league, and you’re not going to get to be one of the big boys overnight. To get a number-one ranking, to win 16 in a row, these are big accomplishments with such a young team.”

This campaign may have come to a premature ending, but there’s plenty of hope for the future among the Maroons. While the squad will lose Schwanz, who won the program’s first-ever NCAA individual statistical title by shooting 93.2 percent from the free throw line, every other member of this season’s rotation will return next winter. It will be the final go-around for the dynamic duo of Mojidi and third-year Nicaya Rapier, who will have a talented core of second-years surrounding them. Another year of development should make Hackney, Woods, Stinson, classmates forward Jill DeNucci and guard Kaitlin Devaney an absolutely dominant class.

“There’s a big leadership gap that needs to be filled with Korry and Megan gone,” Roussell said. “But we’ve got potential, and this team could be something very special.”