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Engineers Finish 14-11; Russell Player of the Year

Christopher P. Anderson


The New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference last week named MIT women’s basketball head coach Melissa Hart conference Coach of the Year and forward Crystal A. Russell ’02 Conference Player of the Year. The awards wrapped up a successful 14-11 season (6-3 in NEWMAC) highlighted by a semifinal appearance in the conference tournament. This is Hart’s second such award; she was also named NEWMAC soccer Coach of the Year after the 14-win 2001 season.

Russell picked up her second consecutive All-Conference selection by racking up 308 points (12.3 per game), 249 rebounds (10.0 per game), 89 assists, and 54 steals. She started all 25 games and averaged 36 minutes per contest.

“Crystal is a complete player,” Hart said. “She does everything well, offensively and defensively. She can post up, pass the ball, guard anyone, and close the inside lane.”

Originally a point guard, Russell played sidekick to Tech scoring machine Cristina Estrada ’01 for her first two years. When she became the center of the offense last season, Hart said “it was like pulling teeth to get her to take some shots herself. She’s such a humble, unselfish player, it was tough to get her to keep the ball.”

Role players step up

After last year’s 5-18 season and the loss of three seniors, the team had to fill holes around Russell, fellow captain Megan C. Daugherty ’03, and feisty guard Connie “O” Yang ’03.

Help arrived in the form of Maria E. Hidalgo ’04 and Rayna B. Zacks ’05. Both were impact players in the 2000-2001 season, but sat out last year due to contractual holdouts. Hidalgo was second on the team this year in scoring (11.5 points/game) with her deft moves and accurate shooting, and Zacks dominated the low post with 10.5 rebounds (leading the conference) and 9.5 points per game.

Also making noise in the early season were first-year players Andrea J. Dooley ’06, Dorothy A. Phoenix ’06, and Samia A. Mahjub ’04. Dooley, a point guard, worked her way into the regular starting lineup and led the team in 3-pointers with 20. Phoenix, a 6-foot-1 center, had 37 blocks, a team best. Mahjub’s smooth shot followed her tendency to make big plays upon entering a contest.

The Engineers burst out of the gate by taking the championship plaque of the MIT Tip-Off Classic with impressive wins over Emerson and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The team then spent Thanksgiving at the McWilliams Classic at Washington University, a homecoming of sorts for Yang, a St. Louis native. Unfortunately, the joy stopped there as the Engineers dropped both games, but the experience galvanized the team as they made a new commitment towards the season.

January included a smorgasbord of non-conference opponents, including a win over Wentworth punctuated by a Daugherty-to-Yang “alley-oop.”

Success in conference play

All but three of the nine conference games were decided by seven points or less, owing to the well-balanced and highly competitive nature of the league. After disposing of Wheaton and Worcester Polytechnic Institute at home (a week in which Russell was named NEWMAC player of the week), MIT lost a barnburner at Wellesley, 64-61. But they bounced back with a 72-69 road win at then-conference-leader Mt. Holyoke.

The next week, they held the lead for a good portion of the contest against New England powerhouse Emmanuel, but despite Russell’s triple-double, the Saints escaped with a 3-point win. Undaunted, the Engineers held off Smith College, but were ambushed by Babson’s speed offense in a 61-41 loss.

The following week, facing a 22-point deficit with 11 minutes to go on Senior Day, MIT blanked out Springfield’s powerful offense with a 23-1 run and forced overtime. They then blew by the Pride for a 64-51 victory. The regular season schedule wrapped up with a loss at Clark and a hard-fought win at Coast Guard.

The Engineers earned second place in the conference and the second seed in the conference tournament. At a home game against Wheaton, free throws were the difference as MIT prevailed 69-59.

The team went to Babson College on Feb. 28 to face Coast Guard again in the semifinals. Coast Guard built a sizeable lead in the second half, but when the score was whittled down to a tie with two minutes left, it looked like MIT had the momentum for another wild win. But the Bears sunk an NBA-range 3-pointer and a wacky reverse layup to force the Engineers to foul, pulling away for a 65-57 victory.

According to Coach Hart, the younger players all went through “great improvement” as the season progressed. This was evidenced in the increased playing time and impact of Lauren E. Tsai ’04, Joanna M. Natsios ’05 and Karen A. Kinnaman ’06.

Seniors will be missed

Hart she says she will miss the seniors dearly. “I loved coaching them,” she said.

“Megan is so smart about the game,” Hart said. “She knows where to take the ball and how to make things happen.” Though her career has been rife with injuries Coach Hart calls her the X factor, “when she's playing well, the whole team plays better.”

Hart praised the dedication of Yang, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament (a painful knee injury) during her sophomore season but returned to play both soccer and basketball the following year. “Her intensity is unmatched and really lifts the team,” Hart said. “She’s a poster child for hard work and mental toughness.” Also an all-NEWMAC goalkeeper on Hart’s soccer team, Yang is a marvelous athlete with a reputation for her tenacious, aggressive defense, and “she never gives up and never complains” about the pain her knees cause her, Hart said.

Hart is optimistic about the future. “We’re losing a lot from the three who are leaving, but with the improvement everyone showed over the season plus some off-season work, things could work out well next year,” she said.