Sports

Last-second trey puts men’s hoops back in mix

Two seconds. One shot. No time to think. And third-year point guard Brandon Woodhead hit the biggest three of his career to turn Chicago’s season around.

After a disappointing sweep last weekend at Ratner, the Maroons (11–7, 4–3) collectively banded together to produce the best pair of team efforts they have had all year. That sort of 1-to-10 depth has been an often-cited but rarely seen dimension of Chicago’s game. Friday’s 80–77 overtime upset over 14th-ranked league-favorite Carnegie Mellon (15–3, 5–2) and Sunday’s 76–47 drubbing of 2005 national runner-up Rochester (12–6, 3–4) went a long way, not only in getting the team back in the UAA picture, but also toward developing the understanding that the Maroons play best building off each other.

“When people realized that it was now or never, people were more focused and played as hard as they could over longer stretches and with more consistency,” said Woodhead, who averaged 15.5 points and 2.5 assists on the weekend. “Earlier in the season it was, ‘Well we didn’t get this one, but we can get the next one.’ If we had played like this earlier, our record would probably be better.”

Carnegie used its size advantage early Friday night to build an early 19–9 lead on 14 points in the paint, showing head coach Mike McGrath enough low-post problems to call a timeout eight minutes in. The Maroons responded with all weapons locked and loaded, as third-year shooting guard Jesse Meyer’s trey sparked a 15–0 run in the other direction to gain his team a five-point lead.

Third-year forward Jason Vismantas and second-year forward Matt Corning flashed inside strength off the bench, opening the outside game even more for the guards. A couple of timely threes combined with strong defense helped maintain a 28–26 lead going into the half. Carnegie shot a season-low 28 percent in the half, and the Tartans’ star big man Nate Maurer was held to four points, two rebounds, and three turnovers.

The second half saw both teams shooting around 50 percent, but the Maroons still maintained control of the game flow the entire way. They avoided the sort of early second-half lapses that struck the team last weekend, and they led until a Maurer layup with 11 minutes left tied the game at 42. The lead changed hands six more times before the buzzer, with Carnegie taking the last advantage of regulation 65–64 on second-year guard Geoff Kozak’s three-pointer with 34 seconds left. Fourth-year power forward Clay Carmody had the chance to take the lead back for Chicago with 17 left but only hit one of two free throws to tie and send the game into overtime.

It was a back-and-forth affair to start the extra session, but the Tartans eventually gained a two-possession lead with time winding down quickly. Even though the Maroons never seemed to lose control of the game, it appeared that they just wouldn’t have enough time to come all the way back. With 22 seconds left, Maurer hit one of two free throws to give Carnegie a commanding 77–73 advantage. Woodhead answered right back on the other end, going coast to coast for a layup and one to make it a one-possession game. Usually a dependable free-throw shooter, the point guard missed his attempt, and Carnegie fourth-year forward Clayton Barlow-Wilcox grabbed the rebound and was sent to the line for two shots.

With the ability to all but seal the game, the 68-percent free-throw shooter missed both.

Woodhead pulled down the rebound for the Maroons and decided, with one timeout left, to run the floor and catch Carnegie in transition. He found Vismantas on the sideline, who sent it to second-year small forward Nate Hainje. Hainje then kicked it back out to Woodhead on the left wing for a three.

Ballgame.

“I’m not thinking whether to go for the tie or the win,” Woodhead said. “I’m thinking I’m completely wide open, I’m going to take this. You don’t plan it. You don’t expect things to go that way, and I don’t know—it’s pretty crazy. The reaction from the fans—it could have been anyone on the team—it was me, and I was open, and I made it. But it’s really gratifying. You feel it.”

Carnegie did have a chance to come back with two seconds left, but an errant pass and a subsequent technical sent Meyer to the line for two charity shots and the 80–77 final.

“It all comes down to toughness last night—it was the epitome of toughness that we demonstrated,” said Meyer, who finished 9-for-10 on free-throw shots and with 18 points overall. “Being down 10 early, being down 5 in overtime, it just didn’t matter. It probably sounds cliché to say, but we’re thinking in the huddle that this has happened before, we’ve been so close so many times. A lot of guys came together and said we’re not going to lose this game. I don’t care who takes the last shot. We’re not going to lose.”

Though Woodhead’s seven overtime points were the last piece of Friday night’s puzzle, the real story of the game was the variety of players who stepped up. The Maroons had a hand in on every pass, shot, and rebound to force 22 turnovers and prevent them from falling out of the game even if a bounce didn’t go their way.

Hainje, the quiet hero, had another spectacular defensive and passing game with four steals and four assists, but he also put his team up by two three times in the last 16 minutes of the game. Vismantas, who played 19 of the last 25 minutes and clearly had McGrath’s confidence down the stretch, added three steals, two assists, and seven points and also starred in the defensive low post. The super sub also had the big stop of the night, stifling Maurer in the paint at the end of regulation. His performances this weekend were a big boost to the team as opposed to just a bonus, as Vismantas continues to improve as an all-around player.

Friday night, men’s basketball showed it could beat anyone. Sunday afternoon, Chicago showed it could wallop anyone.

Having seen what they could do to a big, physical team, the Maroons were looking forward to proving their resurgence was for real, as Rochester brought a very similar, if less athletic, game to Ratner on Sunday. The Midwest referees also helped change the style of play in the Maroons’ favor, calling any and all off-the-ball bumps, particularly down low. Still, Chicago was called for five more fouls than Rochester.

With neither team separating itself through Rochester’s 9–8 lead 5:45 into the game, the Maroons went on a 20–0 run over the next six-and-a-half minutes to build a 19-point margin that would only grow larger.

Woodhead, who is quickly establishing himself as the best point guard in the conference, was the key reason that the Maroons’ other offensive weapons opened up early as he hit a floater, jumper, and layup on three straight drives to preoccupy the Yellowjackets defense.

“We’ve got an advantage at point guard in pretty much any game,” said Meyer of his classmate, who is third on the team with 10.7 points and tops with 4.9 assists per game.

That opened up the outside game for Meyer, who hit three 24-plus-foot treys in the first half, and the inside plays for Vismantas, who went four-for-five in the first 20 minutes and six-for-seven for 13 points on the game. The breakout player had one particularly impressive series, catching a rebound that kicked off the front of the rim and, with no hesitation, putting it right back up to get the bucket and foul.

A 42–20 halftime lead was more than enough for the Maroons, though they expanded the margin to as many as 32 points before the 76–47 final. Chicago shot an incredible 73 percent in the first half and 65 percent overall, while containing Rochester’s big men and keeping the team to 35 percent from the field.

Second-year center Jon Onyiriuka scored 18 points, but the 6-foot-7 Yellowjacket got most of those as consolation points and was clearly frustrated with his inability to get buckets or rebounds. The Maroons held him to three boards and his team to 20, even though Chicago’s fourth-year center Jason Hicks was limited to three boards in four minutes of play due to sickness. His team made up for his absence with 30 boards of their own.

“The contributions we got across the board from the starters to the guys on the bench was complete all weekend,” Woodhead said. “The guys that came off the bench, there was no drop off in performance or effort.”

Now the Maroons find themselves in the thick of the UAA race with three teams—Carnegie, Wash U (13–5, 5–2), and NYU (16–2, 5–2)—just one game ahead of them. Efforts like last weekend will go a long way to grabbing wins down a competitive stretch.

“We have a chance in the league,” Woodhead said. “It’s not going to be easy by any means, but we do have a chance, and it would be big to make the NCAA tourney.

“From this point on, we have to look at every game as the most important game because one loss could potentially mean that we’re out of the race. We’re operating with the mentality now that we have to win every single game to win the conference. With the parity, that’s probably not true, but we’re playing with that.”

The Maroons complete the home-and-home with the Appalachian swing at Carnegie and Rochester this weekend. Knowing that neither team will sleep on the Maroons and that the referees could call very different games, Chicago’s going to need 1 through 10 again.