Saturday, January 23, 2010

Let's Play Two! Hamline at Macalester

One of the great stories of this basketball season has to be the Macalester Lady Scots, who claimed a share of 1st place in the MIAC Saturday with a 74-48 rout of the Hamline Pipers.

The folks at Macalester are sick to death of hearing about the dire straits into which their program had fallen. Still, in order to truly appreciate this Lady Scots team, you have to know that in 2005 its predecessors were unable even to play out their schedule for want of enough healthy women to don the blue and orange. And this wasn't something that just happened overnight, either. By the time the 2004-2005 season was suspended, the Lady Scots were 16-72 for the 21st century.

Meanwhile, St. Thomas alumna--captain, in fact, of the Tommies 1991 national champions--and assistant coach Ellen Thompson had been passed over for the Tommies head coaching job. Instead of the best job in the conference, she ended up with arguably the worst, or at least the most challenging, at Macalester. The 2005-2006 season also was suspended, and play only resumed in 2006-2007.

Yet, here we are 5 years later. The Scots have improved every year under Thompson and now are 11-2 in the MIAC. The Tommies are 8-5. Hammering St. Thomas 60-41 on January 2 had to be one of the sweetest wins Thompson will ever know.

Four senior starters--post Ann Baltzer, guards Eartha Bell and Danielle Johnson, and forward Trina PaStarr--share with Thompson the credit for the Scots' remarkable about face. PaStarr has at times over the years carried her teammates. Last year she scored 15 ppg to climb into 9th place on the Lady Scots all-time scoring list, and was also the #12 all-time rebounder. She is now 6th in scoring and 5th on the boards. This year, however, Baltzer has really blossomed, and leads the Scots in scoring at 15 ppg with PaStarr 2nd at about 12.5. PaStarr leads in rebounding 115-111.

Today, PaStarr got into early foul trouble and the Scots didn't bat an eye, pounding the ball down into the post to Baltzer, who finished up with a game-high 24 points. PaStarr scored 8 points in 19 minutes, with most of both coming after the game had long since been decided.

Meanwhile, Bell and Johnson move the ball--and themselves and their teammates--around the court with alacrity, while also taking great care of the basketball. As a result, Macalester ripped Hamline's lackadaisical defense to shreds today while committing the ridiculously low total of 6 turnovers. As a group they spread the floor, they move with and without the ball, they create passing lanes in every direction. And, if that's the case, then why not throw it closer to the basket, especially when Baltzer and PaStarr have proven so adapt at taking up favorable positions in the paint.

The piece de resistance for the Scots, however, is the sophomore guard duo of Jessica and Shannon Rene from Eau Claire Memorial. The 5-7 twins do everything that Bell and Johnson do, plus they shoot the 3 like mad. After today, they account for 57 of Macalester's 85 3s, and both have been MIAC player of the week in January in recognition of their sharpshooting.

And, yet, despite all of the Scots' many skills, it never felt as though they were hammering Hamline as badly as, well, what turned out to be 74-48. The Pipers have but one senior on their roster, and she didn't play. Hamline's bigs, Jessica Englund, Tromesa May and Mary Wilkowski played quite well. Englund opened the game guarding PaStarr and arguably got the best of the match-up with 11 points, 7 boards and 2 blocks to PaStarr's 8, 3 and 1. Baltzer, of course, scored almost at will inside--well, except that Wilkowski blocked 3 of her shots, added 5 assists and 3 steals and out-rebounded Baltzer 7-6. May added 6 points, 7 boards and 3 blocks in just 17 minutes.

But the fact is the Piper guards were seriously over-matched, and another year of experience isn't going to get the job done. Hamline struggled to find any offensive rhythm, while the Scots were and are a well-oiled machine. Freshman guard Ayana Hicks is not starting for Hamline right now, but could be part of an upgrade starting next fall.

Macalester started fast, hitting on their first 4 shots. By the 16:16 mark, Baltzer had 7 of the Scots' 9 points plus 2 rebounds and a steal. And yet, the game was tied at 16 at about 11:00. The game was decided over those next 11:00, however, as Hamline hit just 4 of its next 17 shots and trailed 40-28 at the half. The Pipers then turned the ball over on their first 4 possessions of the second half and suddenly it was 49-28. Hamline scored its first field goal of the 2nd half at 11:14 with the score 56-31.

The Shoe Moves to the Other Foot

In the 2nd game of the doubleheader it was Hamline running out to a 45-28 half-time lead en route to an easy 84-57 victory. Like the Macalester women, the Pipers did it in part with long-range shooting, hitting 12-of-17 3s. Brandon Rieg shot a remarkable 5-for-5 from downtown, especially considering his year-to-date totals of 4-for-20. Dan Andersen almost matched Rieg with 4-for-4, and Ray Brown shot 2-for-2 on the 3ball.

This is the same Ray Brown who led Richfield to the state AAA final in 2005 and started his college career at Bradley. He's a Piper now and is 2nd in the MIAC in scoring at 17.2 ppg. Mr. Inside to Brown's Mr. Outside is Carl Hipp, who is 3rd in the conference at 16.9 ppg. The Pipers didn't need much from Hipp today and he responded with 5 points on 2-of-5 shooting. Seriously, Hipp is mobile, gets vertical, and has nice hands on the catch. He might not be much at geometry, however, as he had trouble early today finding the right angle off the glass and so the offense found other ways to score. Brown is a man among boys. His passes tend to reach their targets much faster than anybody else's. But he sometimes forgets himself and goes 1-on-2 or 1-on-3, and good things don't always happen.

But if you're looking for good things not always happening, Macalester remains the place to be in the men's division. The loss dropped the Scots men to 0-12. That could change soon, however, as Macalester has a lovely new arena in the Leonard Center and a new coach in Tim Whittle. All Whittle has done previously is help Washington University in St. Louis to 2 national titles and a 112-30 record over 5 seasons as the top assistant.

Watch for a bunch of freshman to play a lot of minutes for Macalester next year. Sounds a lot like the Lady Scots of 2007. Macalester fans hope so.

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