*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – One minute into the fourth quarter of its nationally-ranked showdown with Trine University, the University of Chicago women's basketball team was in trouble. The host Maroons were trailing by 13 points and staring down the possibility of beginning the season with a 2-3 record. For a team that had postseason ambitions, the pressure was mounting.
Fast forward three minutes, and suddenly UChicago was back from the brink. The deficit had been chopped to 61-55 and Trine was calling a timeout to regroup. Maroon Head Coach Carissa Sain had a simple message to deliver to her squad in that bench huddle.
"I believed in this group," Sain said. "I remember walking into the huddle and saying to the team, 'We're winning this game.' That is certainly not the reason why we won, but reminding them that we believed in them was important in that moment."
Her belief was rewarded. The Maroons stormed all the way back to force overtime, then dominated the extra session to claim a rousing 79-70 victory. It would help jumpstart a successful campaign, as UChicago ultimately won the conference title and returned to the national stage as 2020 NCAA tournament participants.
The Maroons entered the 2019-20 season with high expectations. A trio of four-year starters were back in the fold - Taylor Lake, Miranda Burt and Mia Farrell. UChicago had already qualified for the NCAA postseason three-straight years. The schedule would test the squad early and often. After debuting against No. 12-ranked University of Texas-Dallas, the Maroons had multiple national-tournament participants lined up before the grind of University Athletic Association (UAA) league play started. For eighth-year head coach Sain, it was all by design.
"I believe strongly in playing a tough schedule, especially when you have a veteran group like we had this season," Sain said. "They needed to be tested early to learn how to come together and how to win. The postseason is a happy byproduct of just going out there and trying to be the best team we can be. The hardest tests usually propel us forward the most so we make sure to have plenty of those."
After a 1-2 start to the season, UChicago's next opponents were No. 14-ranked Wheaton and No. 11-ranked Trine. The Maroons came up big on the road 73-64 at Wheaton to build some momentum for the home game with Trine.
"Trine had some very good shooters and played a very tough defense to crack," said Sain. "Our offense was going to need to be in mid-season form to score because we weren't going to score off our first or second option in each possession; it was going to require a higher level of team play and execution. For a team that was still trying to navigate who we were offensively, that can be a challenge. This game also came on the heels of a huge win at Wheaton on Wednesday, so to turn around and play Trine was a challenge from a physical standpoint as well."
The first quarter transformed into an immediate barnburner. The Thunder came out red hot, making 10 of their first 11 shots. UChicago countered by hitting six three-pointers. By the end of 10 minutes, the score stood at 23-22.
The breakneck scoring pace slowed in the second and third quarters, to the detriment of the hosts. Trine's defense stifled good looks at the basket and the visitors pounded the ball into the paint at every opportunity to their imposing 6-foot-3 center.
Just when things looked bleakest trailing 59-46, UChicago's urgency kicked into gear. A layup, free throw and two treys forced the Trine timeout with 6:20 remaining.
Down the stretch, the Maroons turned to Farrell to produce. A 1,000-point scorer during her career, the senior guard hit a trio of elbow jumpers with smooth confidence during a three-minute stretch to make the score 67-65.
"At the end of the game, we had had a lot of success putting the ball in Mia's hands and setting a variety of ball screens for her," Sain said. "It was one of the few actions we could run to score quickly so we just kept going back to it. We ran it on both sides of the floor and had our screeners do different things before they went to set the screen to change the defense. We paired the scores with stops on defense and the team never gave up."
Farrell saved her most clutch moment for last. After the Thunder grabbed a defensive rebound with six seconds remaining, the Maroons immediately fouled while still trailing by two. Trine bricked both attempts to give the hosts new life. Farrell drove the lane once again and was fouled with 1.5 seconds left. The senior then stepped to the free throw line with the game in her hands, and calmly nailed both attempts. Tie game at 68-68, and overtime beckoned.
With a vocal crowd on their side, the Maroons rode the wave past the shell-shocked Thunder in overtime. The visitors scored only two points in the extra period, going 0-for-6 from the field. UChicago scored 11 on the other end to claim a critical 79-70 win.
"Mia came up with many of the timely baskets at the end of regulation, but this was a true team win when you back and look at the box score," said Sain. "Klaire Steffens had 13 rebounds against a very talented 6-foot-3 post player – one of the toughest she would compete against all season. We had nine different players score including bench contributions from Alina Brennan, Mallory Brodnick, Lizzy Shaw and Nireet Dhillon. In a big game, to have that many different people contribute to the box score was so important."
Farrell finished with a game-high 25 points. First-year guard Grace Hynes tallied 13 points, nine rebounds and four steals. Burt added 12 points while Steffens posted six points and 13 rebounds.
UChicago would play two more games before Thanksgiving break for a total of four games in seven days. The Maroons handily defeated Kenyon College and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the follow-up. Coming away undefeated during that stretch proved critical to the squad's development.
"The confidence we gained from this game especially on the heels of the Wheaton win really propelled us forward," Sain said. "Before the season even started, this was a stretch that I thought would test us tremendously. For this group to pull together and go 4-0 was not only a huge accomplishment, but a great lesson in toughness and togetherness."