CMS Women's Basketball Hosts Arch-Rival Chapman to Begin SCIAC Play on Saturday (5 PM)

CMS Women's Basketball Hosts Arch-Rival Chapman to Begin SCIAC Play on Saturday (5 PM)

CLAREMONT, Calif. - The first SCIAC opponent for the CMS women's basketball team this season also happens to be the same as its final SCIAC opponent from last year.

The Athenas (4-1) welcome in Chapman (4-0) on Saturday (5 p.m., Roberts Pavilion) for their league opener in a battle between two programs that have become big rivals in recent years (the first 100 students in attendance will receive a raffle ticket to win one of five Amazon gift cards). Two years ago, CMS defeated the Panthers in the SCIAC finals to earn their fourth straight NCAA bid. Last winter, the two teams tied for the SCIAC regular season title at 15-1, with CMS winning in the finale 68-59 to split the season series and earn the co-championship. A week later, the two teams met again for the SCIAC Tournament title, and Chapman prevailed in double overtime 70-61. 

CMS hoped that a 23-4 overall record (with one of the four losses to a non-Division III school) and a double-overtime loss in the conference finals would be enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III Championship. The Athenas have had some success in recent years in NCAA play, winning opening round games in both 2016 and 2017, and had the potential to make another run if it earned a bid. Alas, the invitation didn't come, and the returning players have had the sting of the narrow double-overtime defeat leaving them home carry with them through the offseason. 

"In the fall, this was probably the best turnout we've ever had with people showing up for open gym," said senior guard Teeana Cotangco. "(The loss) definitely fueled our passion."

Of course, a December game doesn't have the same stakes as a tournament final, and there isn't too much on the line on Saturday, other than some early bragging rights and a quality win on the resume for the victorious team. Head Coach Kristen Dowling, now in her seventh season at the helm, admits that facing Chapman means there's a bit more excitement than normal for the SCIAC opener, but feels that it's important to treat it as just one segment of a season-long journey. 

"We want to be sure that we worry about ourselves and not worry about who we're playing," said Dowling. "It's early in the year, and we have to keep our focus on just getting better every day if we want to get to where we want to be at the end. Last year is over, it's a whole new season." 

The trademark for the Athenas so far this season has been their defense, as they come into the Chapman game allowing their opponents only 48.8 points per game on 33.2 percent shooting. Even in their one loss, against No. 10 George Fox, the Athenas forced a whopping 36 turnovers in defeat. This past weekend at the David Wells Classic, CMS held the University of Dallas to only 24 points on 5-40 shooting from the floor, and then held The College of New Jersey below 30 percent (17-47, 29.8 percent) on its way to an 87-52 win. 

"We've been focusing a lot on our help defense and making sure we keep our player in front of us," said Cotangco of her team's defensive prowess. "I feel like being really competitive in practice has really ramped up our defense."

"It's really a credit to our team," said Dowling. "It starts with all of our seniors and juniors, but our ball pressure has been really good and they've just been getting on the ground for loose balls and playing really hard."

The David Wells Classic also saw CMS put forth its best offensive performance of the year, tallying 87 points in the TCNJ win. That contest marked the first time in five games that the Athenas had reached 60 points, and they zoomed past that milestone on their way to the 70-point and 80-point plateaus as well. The team started out with three games in three days on its Oregon trip, and then had a few days of practice before the David Wells Classic, which Cotangco feels started to pay dividends on offense. 

"I feel like we finally reached a point where we gained chemistry with each other," Contangco said. "We got the hang of how each of us plays, and what our tendencies are, which will definitely help the chemistry moving forward." 

"I think we're just getting better with chemistry," Dowling agreed. "We're getting to know each other, we're having better spacing, and that is expected with time. We'll continue to improve as we get to know each other more and more."

Having the first Chapman matchup on December 1 provides the Athenas with a challenging early midterm to find out how much they've learned in the first few weeks of their 2018-19 curriculum. The players on both teams know each other well; each team graduated only one double-digit scorer from last year, and the intensity level will likely turn up a few notches as the familiarity of the rivalry kicks in. Even if the championship won't be on the line for three more months, it'll be an early chance for the Athenas to lace up their shoes and compete in a game that will probably feel more like the postseason tournament than merely week three of the regular season. 

"We're excited to play Chapman," said Dowling. "It's always a good game, we're going to play hard, and we expect they're going to play really hard. We're really looking forward to it."