*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series 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 – Each year in the University Athletic Association (UAA) conference schedule, the University of Chicago women's basketball team hits the road on four weekends across January and February. The trips feature long-distance treks to locales such as Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New York City for high-leverage contests on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.
The away games on the weekend of Feb. 21-23, 2020 were of particular importance. The UAA standings featured a tie at the top – UChicago and New York University were both 8-3, with three games remaining. They would be facing off that Friday.
Former UChicago head coach Carissa Sain – who led the program from 2012 to 2020 – knew right away that this trip had a different feeling. "Their focus was palpable," she said. "They weren't tense. They knew what they had to do. They knew they could do it. From a coaching perspective, it was one of the coolest things I've ever experienced – this collective level of confidence."
That confidence soon translated into a critical 78-62 victory for the Maroons over the Violets that gave them sole possession of first place in the UAA.
When the two teams matched up previously on January 24, UChicago's Mia Farrell and NYU's Janean Cuffee went toe-to-toe in a scoring showcase. Both guards ended up with 31 points, but a strong fourth quarter by the Maroons cemented an 82-71 triumph.
The NYU rematch was five weeks and 10 games later, so Sain knew the game would likely play out differently based on how the teams evolved since then. She liked the matchups in the post with her forwards Taylor Lake and Klaire Steffens, and saw rookie guard Grace Hynes as an x-factor since seniors Miranda Burt and Farrell would be covered by the best guard defenders. Sain's emphasis to her team was to stay calm and composed through any turbulent stretches that could occur.
Cuffee would be the biggest challenge to contain. The swift, athletic guard led the UAA in scoring on the year (20.4 points per game) with a quick trigger on her shot and an ability to carve through defenses en route to the basket.
"We really stuck to our defensive principles," Sain said. "There were multiple things that we knew we could do much better than the first time, so we focused on those details which didn't necessarily involve Cuffee. Our team knows how good she is and how good their point guard, Annie Barrett, is at getting her the ball so we really just stayed true to our scheme."
In the early going, NYU took its largest lead of the night at 19-12. However, the Maroons bounced right back to tie the game at 21-21. By halftime, UChicago held a narrow 38-36 lead. Sain was pleased; she felt confident in the pace of the game and how her team settled in as the half wore on. NYU had thrown in a few wrinkles in its game plan that got the Violets a few three-pointers early on, so UChicago countered accordingly to limit those chances in the second half.
The adjustments paid immediate dividends. The visitors came out blazing with a 16-5 run to start the third quarter. The fourth quarter was just as impressive. UChicago locked down and only allowed eight points over the final 10 minutes to pull away for a 16-point victory.
"The team executing on the defensive adjustments from the half was when I knew we were going to find a way to win this game no matter what happened," said Sain. "Our defense was exceptional and even better in the second half. Our offense started to settle in as well. NYU is a team that can make a run in a hurry, so the focus the entire way through the game, not just after the third-quarter run, was also important. That's the value of a veteran team. They stayed the course the whole way through."
The statistics in the post told the tale. The Maroons outrebounded the Violets by a large margin – 45 to 27. It marked the 17th time in the previous 20 games that UChicago held sway in the rebounding category. Points in the paint were also hugely significant with a 32-14 advantage. NYU did hit 12 of 25 three-pointers in the game, but the hosts were limited to a mere two second-chance points on the evening.
"Points in the paint is always an important stat for us," said the veteran head coach. "We thought we had an advantage with Taylor on the interior with the matchups we expected and that proved to be true. Taylor went 6 of 8 in those spots and a perfect 6 of 6 from the free throw line when they fouled her. She was outstanding. Klaire did a phenomenal job on the offensive boards, collecting seven. But the defensive rebounding in this game was particularly important as well. Giving NYU offensive rebounds meant they'd likely end up with a quick look from three and those are shots they make often. Our guard rebounding was maybe the best it was all season. That effort was good enough for almost an equal amount of rebounds when you compare guards to posts."
Lake led the scoring effort with 21 points, followed by an all-around stat line from Grace Hynes with 18 points, five rebounds and three steals. Burt and Farrell combined for 27 points as well. Steffens snagged 11 rebounds.
The Violets were hurt by turnovers, committing 23 total that were turned into 27 points the other way. Cuffee was limited to 15 points with six turnovers.
The crucial road victory helped the Maroons eventually win the UAA conference title a week later. UChicago received an automatic berth into the NCAA Division III Championship field, and advanced to the second round. The team finished the season with a 21-6 overall record.
"[The win at NYU] just gave this group so much more confidence," Sain said. "At that point, we felt really good about our chances of winning the rest of our games and playing in the postseason. I felt like the NYU game and that weekend on the road on the east coast really simulated an NCAA weekend, so to see their focus, intention and confidence in taking that game and then the weekend was really fun!"