April 4, 2008

No sweetness for women's basketball as Kean ends Maroon playoff run

There may not have been much for women’s basketball to savor in its Sweet-16 loss, but looking back on the 2007–2008 season, the team has plenty of reasons to be hungry for next year.

Nerves and a point drought at the start of the contest proved too much for the 19th-ranked Maroons (22–6) to overcome, and Chicago’s season for the record books ended March 14 in Union, NJ with a 70–56 loss to seventh-ranked Kean (28–3). A hot first half by second-year forward Molly Hackney couldn’t spark the squad’s offense, and the resurgence of fourth-year guard Nofi Mojidi in the post came up short in the final minutes.

Back-to-back jumpers by second-year guard Cardiss Jackman set the home team off on a 24–2 run to open the game and seal its spot in the Elite Eight. Hackney sank a pair of free throws to make it 6–2 at the 17:37 mark, but the Maroons missed their first 12 shots from the floor and couldn’t make up for those lost points later.

With the offense lagging, Kean managed to work around Chicago’s defensive game plan, nailing shots despite the Maroons’ execution of making the Cougars shoot over them. All through the half, Chicago trailed by double digits and went into the break behind 36–22.

“Two high-scoring teams like this, 14 points is not that much to overcome,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “We had come back in the second half many times during our year, and I still felt at halftime that we were in okay shape.”

“Once our team realized that Kean was just like any other team we had played, we started to play our game and gave Kean a run,” Hackney added. “I think the excitement of playing in the Sweet 16 and also the atmosphere of playing in Kean’s home gym contributed to some pre-game jitters.”

Hackney certainly did her part to help Chicago recover from the early slump. She collected 13 of her game-high 19 points and pulled down nine of her 10 rebounds on the night in the first half. Four blocks and two steals went along with her third double-double of the season.

“She was an absolute competitor,” Roussell said of Hackney, whose health had been worn down by finals and who had suffered a sore back from the plane ride to New Jersey. “She probably should not have been on the floor, but she refused not to come and refused not to play. I give her a lot of credit. She was a real warrior.”

With Hackney lighting up the scoreboard in the first, fourth-year guard Nofi Mojidi and third-year guard Alex Leach found their forms in the second stanza. Mojidi put up 14 points to close her career with an 18-point effort while Leach drained a pair of threes to get her to 10.

“She went into attack mode, and they had a hard time defending her,” said Roussell of Mojidi, who will graduate second on the all-time list in points (1,387) and in steals (226).

Four times the Maroons cut the Cougars’ lead down to nine but couldn’t get any closer to their hosts. A layup by first-year forward Karly Kasper with 8:57 to go marked the last time that Chicago had Kean within spitting distance.

“We got [the lead] down to nine a couple of times, and I thought that if we had gotten it down to six or seven, it would have really put the pressure on them,” Roussell said. “We just could never quite get to that point.”

The South Siders never got to put that kind of pressure on Kean. Instead, the Cougars pounced for another 16 points after Kasper’s bucket to drive up the final score to 70–56. With its 28th straight victory in hand, Kean advanced to the next round, while the Maroons exited the tournament but not before raising the bar for Chicago basketball.

This winter marked a season of firsts for the program. The Maroons’ first-ever appearance in the Sweet 16 came on the heels of notching the first NCAA tournament win with a 62–59 edging of St. Thomas (20–8) March 7. The last time the South Siders made the tourney, it was a short-lived run over a decade ago. A 70–53 loss to Milliken in the first round ended their chances in 1995.

Their second turn in the Little Dance came after a seven-game winning streak in UAA play hit its peak with a 76–53 swamping of Wash U at Ratner to close out the regular season. The victory earned Chicago its first league title since 1989 and first outright crown in program history.

“I think this season gave them a taste of what kind of success they can have,” Roussell said. “Now we definitely have targets on our backs, and that’s a much harder role to be in. It’s a great problem to have, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.”

“I do think we could have progressed further in the tournament, but overall I believe we had a tremendous season,” Hackney said. “We all knew that our team could accomplish great things so it was exciting to prove that to everyone else.”