February 27, 2009

To preserve shot at NCAA, Chicago must win on the road at Wash U

After last year’s season set up a climactic UAA women’s basketball “championship” game between the Maroons and Wash U, this year’s finale has proved to be no less important for Chicago (17–7, 8–5). While a repeat crown is out of the Maroons’ reach, a win over the ninth-ranked Bears (20–4, 12–1) is essential to keeping the South Siders’ postseason hopes alive. Losing narrowly last weekend to sixth-ranked Rochester (21–3, 10–3), Chicago lost a chance to make a powerful statement to the NCAA selection committee. Now the Maroons’ opportunities to impress upon the powers-at-be for an at-large tournament bid comes down to a road game in St. Louis on Saturday, where Chicago hasn’t won in a decade.“I do think we need to win to have a chance,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “I think you can never feel too comfortable; I wish we had two more wins under our belt, but I think if we do win we give ourselves a really good chance to get into the tournament.”Heading into the final weekend of regular season play, many of the UAA standings are final. Wash U will take back its conference championship after a one-year hiatus from the top, and Carnegie (5–19, 0–13) is guaranteed to be the bottom of the barrel. Rochester will take second place with a likely win over Carnegie, while 20th-ranked NYU (20–4, 9–4) could still sneak in with a win and Yellowjacket loss. A third-place finish is still possible for the Maroons, who would be third with an NYU loss and an upset over the Bears.If the Maroons make the tourney cut, they’ll likely be one of five UAA squads in the dance. Despite a worse conference record than the Maroons, 25th-ranked Brandeis (17–6, 7–6) is one of four UAA squads in the rankings, and Roussell thinks the Judges look better nationally. “Hopefully we can find a way to get five in for the UAA,” Roussell said.Saturday’s game pits the UAA’s top offense against one of its stingiest defenses. The Bears come into Ratner averaging a conference-best 73.3 points per game, and a conference-best field goal percentage of .425. Chicago, meanwhile, boasts a UAA-leading field-goal defense and the second-best rebounding defense and also tops the conference in blocks. Chicago, though, has also demonstrated strong balance on the offense. The Maroons are the only other team in league with five players averaging six or more points per game, three of whom average more than 10 points a game.In their first meeting this season, Chicago led the Bears at home with under five minutes to play, but allowed a 7–0 Wash U run to propel the visitors to a narrow 54–50 win. The Maroons did keep the visitors’ high-flying offense in check, though, holding Wash U well below their scoring average. This time around, Chicago will look to do the same job defensively while improving their rebounding in order to give themselves the scoring chances they need to put the game away. “We just forced them to take difficult shots and take shots I don’t think they wanted to take,” Roussell said of the last Wash U game. “I think it’s unfortunate that we didn’t finish the job with the rebounding, but that was one of the better defensive efforts this year.”At this point in the season, Roussell knows his team’s strengths and weaknesses and has spent the week polishing them rather than trying anything new. Now, it all comes down to execution. “It’s more of a heart check and a gut check than anything else,” Roussell said. “They’re a really good team and we’re a good team too. We just need to execute and play harder than they do.”Having locked up the conference championship and their NCAA bid, conventional wisdom says the Bears might have more reason to let up heading into the postseason. But Roussell was quick to point out this isn’t necessarily the case.“I think they have everything to play for to be honest with you,” he said. “I think if they win on Saturday, they’ll have a chance at hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, and that’s big for them. There’s no question we’ll get their best shot.”The Maroons tip off at 1 p.m. Saturday to try to extend their season into March for the second year in a row.