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Poor defense, slow starts put CMU women in unfamiliar territory: 'This team is better than that'


Bolingbrook, Illinois junior Jahari Smith attempts a layup against Ohio on Jan. 16 in McGuirk Arena. 

The first 10 minutes of CMU's matchup against Ohio on Saturday were a sharp contrast from the final 10. 

The former unraveled quickly: Two fouls on senior forward Kyra Bussell sent the versatile stretch-four to the bench for the remainder of the first half. Miscommunication in transition led to several open layups and a pair of wide open 3-pointers for Ohio's Caitlyn Kroll. Offensively, the Chippewas missed six straight shots and were held scoreless for nearly six minutes. 

However, the last 10 minutes were a polar opposite. Switching to a full-court defense, the length and hustle of the Chippewas (7-4, 5-2 Mid-American Conference) smothered Ohio and forced 11 turnovers. A 17-point Bobcat lead shrunk to five, and senior guard Micaela Kelly shouldered the load with a pair of late triples. 

Yet, it wasn't enough.  

When head coach Heather Oesterle sat in front of the computer for her virtual postgame press conference, nearly 15 minutes after the game concluded, any excitement from her team's late-game rally was erased by the sting of a second-straight defeat. 

"That was a disappointing loss at home," Oesterle said. "I just talked to the team about the fact that, in the first quarter, the last two games we've gotten punched hard and we haven't fought back."

Those last two games -- the matchup with Ohio and a prior trip to Northern Illinois -- have left the Chippewas crawling out of double-digit deficits after the first quarter. At NIU, CMU was blitzed by the flaming 3-point shooting from the Huskies. Each of NIU's first six possessions ended with a bucket.

The Chippewas didn't record their first made field goal until the 4:59 mark of the opening stanza with senior guard Maddy Watters' 3-pointer. Three days later, against Ohio, CMU again took too long getting going offensively and paid the price defensively. 

"Right now, our offense is struggling," Oesterle said. "Sometimes, at Central, we think we're a great offensive team. But sometimes when our shots aren't falling it has an impact on our defense and that can't happen." 

Oesterle and her team are now at a crossroads. Tied for third place in the MAC, the Chippewas are playing catch-up. Still, there are 13 conference games remaining, starting with a matchup at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Eastern Michigan (7-5, 4-3 MAC) in McGuirk Arena, but the consecutive losses serve as a call to action. 

"If winning a championship is still our goal, well we need to pick it up," Oesterle said. "We’re not playing like a championship team at all right now."

The struggles begin on the defensive side, where the Chippewas have allowed 104 and 93 points, respectively, in their last two outings. On Synergy, an analytical scouting service, CMU ranks in the fourth percentile defensively, allowing nearly a point per possession.  

"It's unacceptable," Oesterle said. "We're not taking any responsibility for keeping somebody in front of us. At one point, it was like a layup drill for (Ohio)."

CMU's struggles against the Bobcats forced a defensive experiment. As Ohio's lead grew, the Chippewas found themselves in an unenviable situation. Oesterle, who is not one to extensively use what she calls "junk defense," turned to a full-court press for the final eight minutes. 

The results were striking. Using a lineup of Watters, Kelly, junior center Jahari Smith, sophomore wing Annika Weekes and Bussell, CMU intercepted passes and caused a 10-second violation. Watters and Smith applied pressure on the inbound pass, with the other and Kelly helping to trap the first pass.

"I wouldn't say we work on it a lot, because we don't normally do it a lot," Oesterle said. "But maybe we add that, too. I thought we had a good pressing lineup in. ... That's a good lineup to press. If we can't get stops in the half court, we might have to extend our defense full-court and try to turn people over."

Against the Eagles, the Chippewas will have to match the MAC's top scoring defense. EMU allows just 60 points per game, and opponents have broken 70 three times in its 12 games. Additionally, the Eagles have won their last three. 

Areanna Combs is tops for EMU in scoring. The Eagles have three players who average double figures, none of their other options average more than five points per game. The focus, presumably, needs to be slowing down Combs and allowing the others to do the lion's share of the work. 

Wednesday's matchup is an opportunity to craft a long-term solution. Snapping a two-game losing skid is important for morale, considering the Chippewas have been at the top of the conference for the last five years. This isn't a spot CMU has been in too many times since Oesterle began her tenure as an assistant under Sue Guevara in 2010.  

But this season, when no game is guaranteed due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, getting everything worked out, and doing so quickly, is pivotal.