February 26, 2008

After NYU rout, second half surge lifts women's basketball past Judges

[img id="80363" align="alignleft"] It took two hard-nosed battles (and one big gift from upstate New York), but women’s basketball made it out of this weekend’s action unscathed, and by doing so, set up a Bears–Maroons showdown for all the marbles.

Although half the UAA entered Friday night’s action tied for the conference lead, only 48 hours later, the race for the championship had narrowed to just Chicago and Wash U. To stay in contention, the Maroons (19–5, 10–3 UAA) beat back NYU (14–10, 3–10) 84–64 Friday, then defeated a well matched Brandeis squad (17–7, 8–5) 62–55 Sunday. Wash U (18–6, 10–3) beat the same two teams to stay tied for the top spot.

But the Maroons’ date with the Bears Saturday wouldn’t be the unofficial UAA title game that it is if both teams hadn’t gotten some help from elsewhere in the league. On Sunday, Emory third-year guard Erica Kaplan, the sister of Chicago rookie Dana Kaplan (14–10, 7–6), couldn’t make it to the Family Day ceremony at Ratner, but she did the next best thing: score 16 points to lead the Eagles in a 59–56 upset win at 17th-ranked Rochester. Emory’s win bumped the Yellowjackets out of competition for the conference crown, leaving Chicago and Wash U as the lone contenders.

Before the South Siders could get in position to control their own destiny, they first had to deal with NYU and third-year forward Jessica McEntee, the reigning UAA Player of the Year.

As the game got under way, the Maroons relied on their variety of scoring threats to keep the Violets at bay. McEntee, who scores nearly 22 points a game for NYU, came out cold and the visitors’ offense stalled, while Chicago hit its shots and built up a 21–11 lead nine minutes into the game.

With McEntee struggling, the Violets looked to their other strength, their speed, to come back. The pace quickened, and the Maroons looked off-kilter running with an NYU team that was only too happy to make the game a track meet.

Appearing thrown off, Chicago piled up the turnovers and its lead dwindled until a five-point run by NYU tied the game with 4:14 left in the half. Coming off the bench, fourth-year guard Lori Tanaka got hot late and hit a pair of threes to put the Maroons back in control and up by seven at the break.

When the teams came back out, the Violets kept up their streaky play. They let the Maroons get a 13-point lead early, then pulled back within six. Chicago ran its advantage out to 14, and NYU chopped it down to five with eight minutes left in the game. Finally, fourth-year guard Nofi Mojidi caught fire, dropping 13 points in six minutes as Chicago charged out to a 22-point lead and left NYU behind for good.

On the Maroons’ side, third-year guard Alex Leach led the scoring with 19 points, followed by second-year forward Molly Hackney with 17 points and Mojidi with 16. McEntee led the Violets with 14 points and 8 boards, a rough outing by her standards.

“Anna Woods did a tremendous job on her, as did the rest of our post,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “That was one of the best jobs I’ve seen anyone do against McEntee.”

Sunday’s matinee with Brandeis was a tale of two halves for the Maroons. After Leach and Mojidi combined for eight early points, the offense started to stumble. As Chicago hit just 5 of 13 free throws in the half and shot 28 percent, the Judges pounced on the Maroons and led 28–20 by halftime.

“We made a nice run to start the half and we relaxed after that, and that’s definitely not something you can do in a game of that magnitude,” Roussell said of the team’s play. “I didn’t feel like we played as tough as we normally do.”

Looking to erase the memory of the first half, Chicago returned from the break playing like a brand new team. Three minutes in, a trey from Leach got the squad within one, and Kaplan’s layup with 10 minutes left gave them a one-point margin.

After trading baskets with the Judges, the South Siders got some separation with a pair of threes from Kaplan that helped put Chicago on top by eight with six minutes remaining. The Judges hung around, but the home team never lost the lead and took home a 62–55 victory.

On the day, Mojidi led all scorers with 14 points, followed by Leach with 13. Kaplan finished with 10, all coming in the second half.

Another two-win weekend gives the Maroons a six-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s rumble at Ratner. The Bears got the best of Chicago in their first matchup of the season, winning 67–56 in St. Louis January 12. Chicago kept that game close until late, and with so much time between the teams’ meetings, it is hard to say how the rematch will go.

“I know both teams have gotten a lot better since that game, so you don’t really know what to expect,” Roussell said.