It’s so far, so good for women’s basketball.
The home loss to second-ranked Illinois Wesleyan on December 13 appears to have lit a fire beneath the team, as Chicago has rattled off three convincing wins in its preparation for Saturday’s UAA opener against Wash U (8–3).
“I think since that game we’ve really buckled down and played really well,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “I think we really started to lock down defensively, and our offense has been better since Illinois Wesleyan.”
That lockdown defense has been the Maroons’ hallmark for the past few games, as Chicago held Kalamazoo (0–11) and Loras (7–5) to their lowest point totals of the year (40 and 60 points), and MSOE (6–5) to its third lowest of the year (51 points).
“That’s something that we’ve been good at the last two years,” Roussell said. “And for us to get back to the tournament, we need to make our strength on the defensive end, and we’ve been able to do that the last few games.”
While the Maroons emerged from the non-conference schedule relatively unscathed, they’ll need to refine their scoring and transition defense to compete in the perennially strong UAA competition.
In a conference that features six teams that have appeared in the top 25, three of which made it through non-conference play undefeated, the Maroons will have their hands full. Rochester (9–0) begins conference play as the top-ranked team in the nation, Brandeis (10–0) is ranked fifth, and NYU (10–0) is ranked 13th. Wash U and Emory (8–2) also received votes in d3hoops.com’s poll.
“The caliber of teams in the UAA is very good,” Roussell said. “We’ve played a pretty tough schedule, but there’s just a different level once you get into the UAA, and I think everybody realizes you’re really playing for something.”
After winning the UAA title for the first time in nearly 20 years last season, Chicago entered the year ranked 11th in preseason polls. Two losses have pushed the Maroons down a few places over the past month and a half, but the South Siders are riding a three-game winning streak into the conference season, which begins with three home games.
Saturday afternoon’s opener will be a rematch of the last UAA game played at Ratner, which saw the Maroons dominate Wash U, 76–53, ending Wash U’s decade-long reign as UAA champions.
This year’s Wash U squad features a balanced offense that has five players averaging between 8 and 10 points per game. While the Maroons have demonstrated great proficiency in half-court defense as of late, Chicago has struggled to stop transition offense, one of the Bears’ strengths this season. The South Siders, typically a strong rebounding team, will also need to limit Wash U’s second-chance opportunities, as the 17 offensive boards per game have given the Bears a large boost this year.
In what looks to be a six-team race to the UAA crown, an early win could prove highly significant for the Maroons and the Bears come late February, when the teams clash once again in St. Louis. Chicago was able to overcome a conference-opener loss at Wash U a season ago, but with the travel schedule reversed this season, capitalizing on home-court advantage could help decide which team ends up on top.
“I think to do well in the UAA, to win in the UAA, you have to win at home, and that puts a little bit of pressure on us these first two weekends because you have to protect your home court in the UAA,” Roussell said.
If last season was any indication, a sweep of the home schedule could be a vital boost for the Maroons, as last year’s squad made up for their struggles on the road with a 7–0 record at home. Just as important was Chicago’s performance in the second half of a UAA season that started slowly for the squad: The team swept the second round of UAA games, despite going 4–3 their first time through the conference.
After Chicago’s first three home games against Wash U, Emory, and Case (7–4), it heads on a four-game road trip that includes consecutive contests at Rochester, NYU, and Brandeis. The Maroons then run back through the conference, all leading up to a regular season-ending showdown with Wash U on February 28.
In a conference where any road win or home loss could turn the tide, the Maroons are certainly hoping their current hot streak continues deep into the UAA schedule.
“Hopefully we don’t need losses to remind us to play the way we should be playing,” Roussell said.