SPORTS

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March 11, 2008

How sweet it is: women's basketball advances

Fresh off of its first UAA championship in nearly 20 years, women’s basketball continued to make school history over the weekend, scoring Chicago’s first postseason win and using a dominant second-round performance to advance to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

Traveling to Stevens Point, WI, Friday to participate in their first tournament since 1989, the Maroons (22–5) edged St. Thomas (20–8) 62–59, despite an opportunity for the Tommies to tie the game on free throws in the final seconds. Using the momentum of this historic win, Chicago advanced out of the regional round by toppling 25th-ranked St. Norbert (22–5) 65–52.

Playing in a conference without a championship tournament, and without any athletes on the roster who could boast playoff experience, Chicago still headed into the weekend with some prior knowledge of the pressure in win-or-go-home situations.

“The actual tournament is new to us,” head coach Aaron Roussell said, “but we told ourselves we were in the tournament after the first Rochester game because we knew at that point we could not lose any more games and still have a chance at winning the UAA. We have been in win-or-go-home mode since then.”

But the postseason inexperience showed in the first half, as the Tommies went up 11–4 in the game’s first five minutes. Shaking off nervousness, Chicago found its form, tightened up on defense and went 49 percent from the field in the first half, better than St. Thomas’s 32 percent.

Putting Chicago up 20–19 with one of her four first-half threes, third-year guard Alex Leach helped spur the Maroons onto a 28–12 run to end the first half, and the South Siders headed into the locker room with momentum decidedly in their favor.

“It was a difficult environment to play in because of rowdy fans and being on the road,” first-year forward Molly Hackney said, “so I think that is why it took us so long to get going. Once we started playing Chicago basketball and focusing on our game we took the lead.”

Chicago maintained their lead after the break, and the squad’s strong defense led to three blocks and eight steals on the night. A quick seven points by the Tommies with nine minutes remaining changed the tone of the game, however, as St. Thomas chipped away at the Maroons’ margin. When first-year guard Chelsea Wirtz sunk a trey to pull the Tommies within three, the reality of the elimination round set in.

Drawing three fouls in the last 30 seconds, the Tommies had a chance to tie things up, and the Maroons could only hold their breaths. Yet all three efforts fell short, and at the buzzer the South Siders were still on top, having logged the first tourney win in Chicago history.

Leach led her squad with 17 points, and fourth-year guard Nofi Mojidi followed with 12.

After their victory, Chicago had some help as St. Norbert upset 13th-ranked Stevens Point. Facing the lower-ranked Green Knights, the Maroons wouldn’t have to contend with the Pointers’ home crowd. Still, early competition was fierce on Saturday, as the lead toggled four times in the game’s opening 15 minutes. When a jumper from second-year center Jill DiNucci put the Maroons up 18–12, giving them the largest lead of the night up to that point, the squad ran with it.

Closing out the stanza on a 19–4 spurt, Chicago held the Green Knights to an unheard of 14-percent shooting from the floor.

“We rode our defense all weekend long,” Roussell said, “just as we have all season. Against St. Norbert our defense was phenomenal. We were able to put the clamps down early, and took control of the game in the first half.”

“We had a size advantage on them and we were able to take advantage of it defensively,” Roussell continued. “To hold any team to 14-percent shooting, let alone in an NCAA Tournament game, is unbelievable.”

After the break, the South Siders put to rest any fears of a second-half slump, running out to a 24-point lead by the 12:24 mark after three early treys. In a flashback to Friday, though, St. Norbert refused to fade quietly into the night and put together a 19–4 run of their own to make it 52–44 with eight minutes remaining.

Early success kept the Maroons confident, however, and the squad used strong post play in the final minutes to close out the round 65–52.

“Once we started gaining a significant lead everyone realized that we could and should beat St. Norbert,” Hackney said. “The lead allowed us to remain focused and stay confident in our abilities.”

Hackney and Mojidi led the squad in scoring on the night, with Mojidi grabbing 17 points and Hackney following with 14 points and 8 rebounds. The former UAA Rookie of the Year and current All-UAA First Team selection also swatted away five Green Knight shots to collect her team-leading 40th block of the season.

The Maroons’ journey into uncharted waters continues on Friday in Union, NJ, where Chicago takes on the 11th-ranked Kean University Cougars (27–3), who beat out Utica and Brandeis in their regional tournament. This postseason run is now the school’s most successful in any team sport since women’s soccer advanced to the national semi-finals in 2005, and the South Siders feel that they’re positioned to continue heading deeper towards the Final Four.

“I think that our team is coming together at the right time,” Hackney said. “Last year we were fading toward the end of the season, but this year we are peaking. I think that if we keep improving during practice and continue to play team basketball we will continue to have success.”