An injured captain, two home games and a matchup against the league leader set the scene for women’s basketball this weekend.
Tonight, Yale (10-10, 3-3 Ivy) will tip off against Columbia (4-16, 0-6) at Lee Amphitheater before taking on Cornell (8-11, 4-2), the top team in the Ancient Eight, on Saturday. After losses to Princeton and Penn on the road last weekend, the upcoming games have the potential to be a turning point in the Elis’ season. Two wins could put the sixth-place Bulldogs back into the running for the championship.
But captain and forward Chinenye Okafor ’07 — one of the team’s leading rebounders with 8.7 boards per game — is sidelined this week with a broken big toe. Yale head coach Chris Gobrecht said that Okafor’s absence against Penn on Feb. 3 was a key reason for the loss, and that she anticipates Okafor will be out of this weekend’s lineup as well.
Okafor remains optimistic about her playing ability.
“The doctor said I would have to be out four to six weeks and I probably won’t practice this week, but I’ll be working with the trainers and it’s possible I could come back this weekend,” she said.
Gobrecht said the Elis are coping well with Okafor’s absence and are prepared to play without her this weekend.
“We just have to let the players on the floor be who they are,” Gobrecht said. “They have to be out there in a context that’s right for them.”
Although Okafor’s season has come to an abrupt halt, for the rest of the team, conference play rolls on. The first matchup is against eighth-place Columbia, which has yet to win an Ivy League game.
Columbia lacks any concentrated rebounding power, a weakness the Bulldogs should be able to exploit tonight. Even with Okafor’s injury, center Erica Davis ’07 still pulls down 9.4 boards per game.
“Erica just has to be willing to work hard every game,” Okafor said. “If she settles for average, she’s still better than a lot of players, but she needs to keep her focus.”
Gobrecht is counting on Davis to help the team to learn how to play without Okafor in the upcoming weeks. She said the Bulldogs need to be craftier on offense to keep the possessions that Okafor’s offensive rebounding usually maintains for the squad.
The Elis have gotten continued strong performances from guard Stephanie Marciano ’08 — who was responsible for four of the seven Eli three-pointers last weekend — and guard Melissa Colborne ’10, the team’s runner-up for total points this season.
Cornell, who will make the drive from Ithaca, N.Y., tomorrow night, sat atop the conference standings until their second loss to Harvard on Feb. 3 dropped them to third. The Big Red returned four starters this season and gets solid play from around the court, with all five starters totaling over 100 points on the season so far.
The forwards — sophomore Jeomi Maduka and junior Moina Snyder — lead the team in points and boards. Post player Maduka will be Davis’ major competition, and forwards Ashley Carter ’10 and Haywood Wright ’10 could match up against Snyder as possible replacements for Okafor. Cornell’s balanced squad also gets a lot of assists from guards Kayleen Fitzsimmons and Lauren Benson.
Due to their strength at every position. the Big Red will present a challenge to the Bulldogs.
“We need to focus on playing together,” Okafor said. “We have great players in all different parts of our game, and we can be good with any five players on the court.”
All five Bulldogs on the court will have to work on filling Okafor’s absence by generating more possessions off boards. Davis said she is up to the challenge.
“My role is to rebound more and be more dominant defensively against other post players,” she said. “Being consistent is my biggest goal. If anything, I will try to fulfill my role as a go-to player when we fall into a lapse in the game. I’ll try to focus on at least taking it to the basket and securing as many possessions as I can get with rebounds.”
The matches this weekend will be important in setting up a tough stretch of four away games in the coming weeks. Two wins this weekend could propel the Elis to victories at Harvard and Dartmouth next week. But if the Bulldogs are defeated, their hopes for an Ivy League title may disappear completely.