March 3, 2009

Bears block Maroons’ quest for NCAA bid

A year after the best postseason performance in program history, a loss in their regular season finale means women’s basketball will watch this year’s tournament from home. Heading to St. Louis, the Maroons (17–8, 8–6) knew a win would give them a fighting chance at NCAA selection while a loss would all but deny the team a shot at repeating its 2008 Sweet 16 run. Faced with a UAA champion Wash U squad(21–4, 13–1), Chicago came up short in a 70–55 loss, and when the NCAA released brackets today, the Maroons were absent. “I think everybody is pretty disappointed,” fourth-year guard Alex Leach said. “You work for four months to try and get into the tourney and come up short. You’re left with an empty feeling.”Playing with a win-or-go-home mindset, Chicago was up against an equally determined Bear squad intent on bettering its record to secure a higher tournament seed and host the first two rounds of the dance. In a battle of wills, Wash U emerged on top.“They were ready to play,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “They were fired up, and they had an attitude that they were going to refuse to lose on Saturday. We just couldn’t get ourselves up to their level.”The Maroons took the lead only once on the night, when a layup from first-year guard Bryanne Halfhill put Chicago up 7–6 just over two minutes into the contest. Despite losing the advantage quickly, the Maroons kept things tight for a good part of the first half. Scoring five points in a 30-second stretch, though, third-year forward Janice Evans jumpstarted Wash U and gave the hosts a 19–12 edge with 12:16 to play. A Maroon timeout couldn’t stop the Bears from widening their margin with another jumper, but Leach nailed a three-pointer seconds later to reel in Wash U and trim the gap to a manageable six points. After a bucket from first-year guard Meghan Herrick made it 32–25 with 2:41 to play, Chicago looked to be heading towards the lockers facing a surmountable deficit. But two quick three-pointers from fourth-year guard Halsey Ward swung the momentum back the Bears’ way, giving the hosts a 38–27 lead at the half. Coming back from the break, the Maroons appeared to have regrouped as a layup and two treys from Halfhill made it 43–35. Halfhill’s heroics gave way to a three-minute scoreless stretch for Chicago, though, and by the time the Maroons had made their next basket, a 12–0 run had Wash U sitting comfortably atop a 20-point lead with 13:38 to play. The Bears enjoyed a double-digit edge for the rest of the contest, as the South Siders couldn’t pull within less than 13. As the Bears began to run away with the game, Chicago’s offense slumped, and the Maroons fell into a 26.3 percent average from the field during the second stanza.“When we get down, I think we get into a rut and take some early shots,” Roussell said. “I don’t think we move the ball like we do when we’re playing well.”Foul trouble also hampered the Maroons’ upset bid. Third-year forward Molly Hackney drew two early fouls and picked up a third immediately after coming back into the game from a long stretch on the bench. On the offensive side, Chicago made just six out of 14 attempts from the free throw line, an average of 37.5 percent well below the squads’ 65 percent mark on the season. “We haven’t been able to make a free throw for about three weeks now,” Roussell said. “I really don’t have an answer of why we’ve been struggling so much about the line. We’ve done a nice job of getting to the line, we just haven’t been able to capitalize.”With Chicago out of the picture, Wash U, Rochester, NYU, and Brandeis will represent the UAA. “There’s four teams that got in, and all four of those teams are hosting,” Roussell said. “So they’re not just tournament teams, they’re sort of the cream of the crop. I’m excited to see how our league does. I think all of them have a very good chance to make a long run in the tournament. In some ways that may validate our schedule and validate our season a little bit, but obviously we wish we were one of those four teams and not sitting at home.” Saturday also marked the 102nd and last appearance for Leach, the South Siders’ sole senior. A two-time All-UAA selection, Leach leaves Chicago with a UAA Championship and 902 career points under her belt, leaving her just outside the program’s all-time top 10 in scoring. Despite losing such a valuable asset, Roussell is confident in his core group of returnees.“I think our senior-class-to-be has some exceptional leaders,” Roussell said. “I’m excited for what that’s going to mean for our program.”