Men’s hoops crushes rival Bears in finale

By Joe Katz

Every team wants to send its seniors out on a good note. Every team wants to defend its own house when its rival comes to town. Given the opportunity to do both, men’s basketball did not disappoint.

The Maroons (15–10, 8–6) earned sweet revenge in their season finale, playing shutdown defense on the perimeter to slap down Wash U 67–57 (17–8, 9–5) at Ratner Saturday. Third-year shooting guard Jesse Meyer recorded a game-high 18 points and tied the program single-season record for most three-pointers to help pace Chicago’s offense. Fourth-year center Jason Hicks marked his territory in the paint one last time with nine boards to lead all comers.

The first Founders’ Cup battle of the winter had been a tight one, with the Maroons coming back from a double-digit first-half deficit to force overtime before falling 74–68 in St. Louis January 7. With four team members donning the maroon and white for the last time, Chicago was determined not to let this one slip away.

“One of my goals every year is to make sure the seniors walk away having had a good experience,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “Part of that is having a good final game. I’m glad they got that.”

With a possible league title on the line for Wash U, the fourth-years had more than enough motivation against their archrival. Unlike the first meeting of the season, neither team was able to distance itself from the start. It would take more than 16 minutes for either squad to build more than a four-point lead. The Maroons had clearly come to play, as epitomized by the performance of third-year point guard Brandon Woodhead. The heart and soul of the team was all over the court, slashing his way to 10 points on four-for-six from the floor in the first 20 minutes and recording a pair of a steals on the other end.

Quality defense proved to be a recurring theme for Chicago. After being rocked on their own end against Brandeis in a 68–51 loss February 19, the team stepped up their perimeter defense and effectively removed the Bears’ guards from the game. Fourth-year shooting guard Scott Stone, who led his team with 22 in the first meeting, went 0-for-12 on the afternoon. The big men did all right for themselves as well, limiting All-District second-year forward Troy Ruths to 11 points and holding first-year forward Tyler Nading to six.

“Having different guys on him helped, and he missed some shots he should have made,” McGrath said. “Things just weren’t going well for him.”

“Coach McGrath and Rusty prepared us very well,” Meyer said. “Stone took a lot of tough shots. He had maybe two good looks, and the other 10 were with hands in his face. We executed the defensive game plan well, but give the post some credit. Ruths is as good a big man as you’re going to find in the UAA. Without all those big guys busting down there on the rebounding, I don’t know if we win that game.”

Up 32–28 at the break, Chicago took advantage of lapses at key moments to blow the game wide open. A Meyer trey and layups from fourth-year power forward Clay Carmody and second-year small forward Nate Hainje turned a four-point lead into a looming 11-point gap within the first 2:15. From there on in, the Maroons win was a fait accompli. Fourth-year center Mike Grunst recorded 6 of Wash U’s 18 points in the paint in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Hicks’ muscle in the post and some expert free throw shooting from Meyer (8-for-8). Chicago led by as much as 15 before easing to the 10-point victory.

“The first five minutes of the second half set the tone,” Meyer said.

It seemed the only drama in the late minutes was whether Meyer, who entered the day three three-pointers from tying the school record of 68 held by Clint Peterson (A.B., ’96) set in 1993–4, would be able to make history. After not getting many good looks in the first half, the third-year recorded his 67th with just 14 seconds elapsed in the second and tied it up with 10:24 to go. Meyer would only get one more good opportunity the rest of the way, sending one in-and-out from 23 feet.

“I would have loved to have broken it, but it just didn’t work out that way. It gives you something to shoot for next year,” Meyer said. “The win’s much more important than any record.”

Yet the day belonged to the seniors, who were able to finish out their careers with a 3–1 mark against Wash U at home. Big man Jon Todd was able to record a rebound in his last collegiate game, and Carmody had nine points, three boards, and two blocks. While the injury-plagued point guard Uche Okonkwo was unavailable, Hicks made up for it with his performance. The man who many consider the breakout player of the year posed quite the matchup problem for Wash U and made good on it to bust out for double-digits for the 10th time this year.

“He had struggled in the Brandeis game personally, and he’s come so far this year to make such a big contribution to our team,” McGrath said. “I’m so happy he’s walking away with a good performance.”

Though Carnegie Mellon’s 78–68 home win over Rochester (16–9, 7–7) would have denied Wash U the league title regardless of the final score at Ratner, the Maroons still may have ended the Bears’ season a little bit sooner than they would have liked. Despite being projected by to grab an at-large bid, Wash U was not picked for the NCAA tournament Sunday after the loss. The 24th-ranked Tartans (20–5, 10–4) will be the league’s only representative when the tourney tips off Thursday.

“The strength of the league kept some teams out of it. We beat up on each other a little too much, so teams like ourselves, Wash U, Rochester, and NYU lost too many games, albeit to good teams, to get in,” McGrath said.

The win locked up third place in the league for Chicago, the ninth time in the last 10 years they have finished in the top three in UAA standings. The team had been projected to finish sixth in the highly competitive league. Their won-loss record is a mirror image of last year’s performance, when the Maroons went 10–15 with a 6–8 mark in the league to finish fifth.

While the squad was not nearly as streaky as last year’s Maroons, their season had a similar rollercoaster ride quality. Chicago went 7–4 against non-conference opponents, and varied between flashes of brilliance and long spurts of immensely frustrating play. They showed just how good they could be in taking then top-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (20–6, 9–5 CCIW) to the absolute limit in a 71–67 loss at Ratner December 3 and in demolishing Kalamazoo (11–16, 8–8 MIAA) at home 79–59 December 10. Yet the team had a tendency to let winnable games slip away by letting big shots by opponents turn into five or six minute runs, most notably in a 70–67 November 26 home loss to a tournament-bound Carleton (21–6, 18–4 MIAC) squad. They were also hampered by the loss of Carmody to illness from December 13 to January 15, and his ensuing need to slowly build his minutes back up. Although second-year forward Tim Reynolds proved a better-than-expected substitute, the Maroons lost a good deal of strength inside.

This pattern would continue throughout the first half of the league season, with a slow start out of the gate dooming them in the overtime loss to Wash U and second-half dead stretches allowing Brandeis (14–11, 7–7) and NYU (18–7, 7–7) to take them out at home January 20 and 22. A season-saving trey with 2.9 seconds to go in overtime against then 14th-ranked Carnegie seemed to get them on the right foot, but a tough sweep on the Appalachian swing and the defensive fiasco against the Judges at Waltham February 19 kept them out of contention for the automatic playoff bid.

“We had a really good season,” McGrath said. “You would always like to win a couple more, but you have to pull back from the day-to-day. If you told me at the beginning of the season that we would be without Clay for so many games, and would end up 15-10, I would have felt pretty good about where we ended up.”

“It’s a double-edged sword, thinking to yourself ‘what if,’ thinking to yourself how easily you could have won the UAA, but trying to stay in the moment,” Meyer said. “It was a big improvement from last year. We took a big step forward, and give the senior class credit for helping us to do that. Hopefully, next year we’ll take another one.”

It was a banner year for the emergent Hicks in his first stint as a starter. Woodhead also made some noise, clearly establishing himself as one of the top point guards in a league with plenty of competition for that title. Reynolds and frontcourt classmate Matt Corning got the bulk of the minutes off the bench, with Reynolds making a mark with his technical aptitude and Corning getting notice for his remarkable ability to penetrate in the paint.

Meyer was the team’s leading scorer on the year, averaging 12.5 points per game. Hicks was the leading rebounder with 5.5 boards per game. Woodhead led the team in assists (113) and steals (27), while Reynolds paced the squad in blocks with 21.

While the graduation of Hicks and Carmody will require some adjustments, the team returns three starters in Woodhead, Meyer, and Hainje. Between Reynolds, Corning, first-years Tom Watson and Adam Machones, and a number of quality recruits, the battle to take over those spots in the rotation should be fierce. Having been in the hunt for the league title with two games left to go this year and receiving the benefit of an early start with a planned September trip to Italy, the battle-tested Maroons may well have a shot at returning to the playoffs for the first time in seven years next winter.

“We got third this year without the best conference record. Imagine what we can do if we go out there and play every night,” Meyer said. “The league is going to be pretty good next year, but I think we should be as good as anyone.”