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Lady Eagles set records, win big
Standing at the foul line, Christina “Mighty” Barnett, of the Robert Morris University Eagles, had the game on her shoulders. The Eagles had gained and lost the lead several times during the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference semifinal game March 1 against the top-seeded Olivet Nazarene University Tigers. With eight seconds left, the Eagles led 100-97. Standing 5 feet 4 inches, Barnett held the basketball and game in her hands.
The Eagles had posted a record-breaking season in the months leading up to this moment. For the first time in the history of the women’s basketball program, RMU was ranked in the top 25 of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Coaches Poll. They opened the season with nine straight wins and beat three ranked teams, a feat no other team had accomplished. The team also had two players, Barnett and fellow senior captain Sarah Rogers, make the All-Conference First team.
“A lot of people were doubting us, saying, ‘Y’all have a young team. Y’all don’t have experience,’” Barnett said. “So when we came out strong, everyone opened their eyes and realized that they had to watch out for us and we were ready.”
The Eagles’ season wasn’t without struggles, however. At the end of February, they lost three straight games leading up to the CCAC postseason tournament, including an upset Feb. 22 at the hands of neighbors, the Roosevelt University Lakers. Christmastime for the Eagles was all coal, as the team lost two straight at the Mid-America Nazarene Christmas Classic in Olathe, Kansas.
“When we went to Kansas and lost those two big games, it was the downfall of the season because we lost track of our strengths,” Barnett said. “Not individually, but as a team.”
Led by Rogers and Barnett, the team picked itself up in true underdog fashion and went on to a winning season, 18-12.
For Rogers, though, record-setting and history making wouldn’t satisfy her hunger for success. She wanted MVP. She wanted the championship. She wanted perfection.
“It’s an honor for people to vote and say that me and [Barnett] are some of the best players in the conference,” Rogers said. “That’s a privilege. But I’m never happy, never satisfied. All you can do is step back as an individual and see if you did what was necessary to help your team in every game, in every point in time.”
Coach John Natanek recruited Rogers from Northern Illinois University, where she was unhappy with the basketball program. But Natanek may have gotten more than he bargained for when he brought her to RMU.
“Sarah was my toughest kid, in a good way,” Natanek said.
Rogers grew up in Chicago and played basketball at Marshall High School, leading her team to the Illinois High School Association State Championship and averaging 12.1 points per game. In her sophomore year at NIU, she averaged just 6 points per game.
“Honestly, I felt like their curriculum, basketball-wise, what they had organized for the team, wasn’t getting done,” Rogers said. “It was like we were practicing early mornings and late nights and not seeing results. I just wanted to win games, so I couldn’t stay there losing.”
As an Eagle, Rogers ended her senior season at 14.3 points and 10 rebounds per game, successes she attributes to her coach.
“[Natanek] is one of the best coaches in the conference,” Rogers said. “He takes on some of the most challenging situations and turns them into good. I love my coach. That man has been a blessing to my life.”
Despite ending up with the same coach at the same school, Barnett’s story is quite different from Roger’s. She grew up in Romulus, Mich., outside Detroit. She didn’t make any headlines on her high school basketball team, generally staying under the radar until going to RMU.
“From her freshman year until now, as a young lady and a student and a player, her growth was tremendous,” Natanek said. “By the end of her sophomore year, I made her team captain.”
Barnett made the perfect compliment to Rogers’ scoring abilities. She lead the conference in assists, dishing out six per game. What she lacked in height and scoring ability, she made up for in quickness on defense, according to Natanek.
“People look at her and assume that either she’s not going to be as talented as she is or easy to take care of on the court, but she’s usually the fastest kid on the court and can guard bigger players when she needs to,” he said.
Although Barnett’s statistics don’t stack up to her teammates’, Rogers insisted that her “Mighty” companion deserved the All-Conference title last year, too, but the conference overlooked her.
“For [Barnett], when it came to awards, there was always a stereotype of what the ‘ultimate player’ is,” Rogers said. “To me, a good player is someone who just goes out there and supports their team.”
None of that mattered to Barnett as she stood at the free-throw line in the semi-finals. She made both shots to put the game out of reach for Olivet, giving her team the chance to compete in the finals against the St. Xavier University Cougars. With those 2 points, Barnett summarized a season of triumph for the Eagles and put the final touches on the biggest win in a record-breaking season. The underdog story was complete, and the team has no plans of stopping their newfound success.
“We made a lot of people realize that they can’t doubt us anymore,” Barnett said. “Now they have to watch out for Robert Morris’ women’s basketball team.”