Audacity of Hope: Men exit tourney

By Tim Murphy

As the clock approached midnight on men’s basketball’s abbreviated NCAA tournament run, the squad’s five fourth-years slowly walked off the court, heads down, listening to a standing ovation they never wanted to hear. It was one last encore for a group that brought the squad back from the depths of mediocrity and onto DIII’s biggest stage. A night that began with the anticipation of a long postseason appearance effectively ended for Chicago with 1:58 left in regulation.

Struggling all game to contain 10th-ranked Hope (24–4) and its electrifying fourth-year shooting guard Stephen Cramer (game-high 32 points), the 12th-ranked Maroons crashed out of the playoffs Friday with a 76–54 first-round loss to the Flying Dutchmen in Aurora. Chicago trailed by 13 at intermission thanks to Cramer’s 25 first-half points, and even with Cramer on the bench for large stretches of the second period, the Maroons (20–6) were never able to mount any serious challenge. While little consolation for the Maroons, fourth-year guard Jesse Meyer (team-high 16 points) set the school’s single-season record for three pointers in a season with a first-half trey.

“I thought Hope played exceptionally well,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “They played the best ball of the weekend and they deserve a lot of credit.”

With both teams especially reliant on perimeter shooting for their offensive productivity, the game came down to how well each squad maximized their possessions. For the Maroons, that meant grabbing rebounds and getting defensive stops against the significantly taller opponents from Holland, Michigan. In the first half, that was just not happening for Chicago.

Both squads showed early on that they were capable of shooting the lights out. While Hope’s aggressive fullcourt pressure and halfcourt trapping defense caused some problems for Chicago offensively, the Maroons were successful in working the ball inside and out to create quality shots and sank more than a few of them.

A pair of Meyer treys, and long distance bombs from fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead and first-year point guard Jake Pancratz had the Maroons down at 17–16 with 10:16 remaining in the period. The Flying Dutchmen then capitalized on extended possessions from both offensive rebounds and hustle plays to stay ahead of Chicago.

While the Maroons showed their ability to stay close in a decidedly partisan atmosphere in the early going, they were ill-prepared for the onslaught from Cramer that closed out the half. With six points through the first quarter of the game on his short-range jumpers, the shooting guard had shown only glimpses of the talent that made him MIAA player of the year. With 19 points in the final 10:01 before the break, he solidified himself as the best player on the court as he almost single-handedly put the South Siders down by double digits.

In one three-minute stretch, Cramer hit on three consecutive treys, then  drained two more before the end of the half. In his first 20 minutes of play he finished with 25 points and 6 boards, nearly outscoring Chicago by himself for the 42–29 advantage.

A team that has overcome halftime deficits to win four times this season, the Maroons came out for the second period with a few changes and looking to make an early run and get back into the game. With Cramer spending much of the second half on the bench, damage control from Pancratz and Woodhead held the Hope star to only seven second-half points.

Any improvement the defensive commitment may have effected, though, was negated by the red-hot shooting from the rest of the Flying Dutchmen. Chicago consistently clawed back to within shouting distance, getting a second-effort bucket from fourth-year guard Derek Brannon to trim the lead back to 13 with 14:52 left. But each Maroons run was answered in time by the orange-clad MIAA champions, and Chicago was unable to fully take advantage when Cramer sat out, managing only a 9–8 margin in that stretch.

A mini 6–0 run to shrink the deficit to 13 with 4:44 marked the Maroons’ final surge but was ultimately cut short by a flurry of Hope jumpers. By that point, the only drama left in the building was whether the Dutch would have a chance to take on archrival Calvin (18–9) in the second round.

In addition to Meyer’s team-leading 16 points, third-year forward Nate Hainje was the only other Chicago player in double figures, with 10 points. Third-year forward Marcus Vanderheid (13), third-year guard Derek Van Solkema (11), and second-year forward Jesse Reimink (10) joined Cramer in double digits on the scoreboard for the Flying Dutchmen. The Maroons were outrebounded 38–23 on the game.

The loss brought to an end a surprisingly successful season for Chicago. After being picked to finish fifth in the preseason UAA poll, the squad found itself playing for an outright league championship February 24 at Wash U. While they lost the regular season finale, their 11–3 conference mark gave them a share of the title, their first since the 2000–2001 season.

With the unexpected triumph, the Maroons netted five players on the All–UAA teams, while McGrath and his staff received Coach of the Year honors. The Maroons will lose fourth-year starters Meyer, Woodhead, guard Drew Adams, and forward Jason Vismantas, in addition to super-sub Brannon, but will return a solid nucleus led by Hainje and Pancratz.

“The thing did more than anything is they took what the previous classes started and really established what this program is going to be all about,” McGrath said. “We’ve got some talented players coming back, but each year’s different. Each team has its own identity, it’s own talents and strengths.”