Teams can turn a season around for any of a number of reasons. Changes in personnel, changes in tactics, inspiration, and fear have all been factors in teams getting their act together just in time to salvage a season. Whatever the Maroons' reason, their pair of wins this weekend officially turns this into a legitimate season, just two weeks after the team was written off by most as a waste of talent. Chicago churned out two huge UAA wins, a Friday victory over Carnegie Mellon University and a huge Sunday upset of #6 Rochester University, to climb back to a .500 record at 8-8. More importantly, the men's team now stands at 4-1 in conference and is currently in the running for an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.
The Maroons were less than spectacular Friday, but they exerted themselves enough to guarantee a convincing victory over the CMU Tartans, 74-63. Chicago maintained the lead from the tip-off after fourth-year captain Derek Reich converted a lay-up for the first pair of his game-high 29 points. His total also put him over the monumental 2,000-point mark for his career, the first time any Maroon has ever done so. Other Chicago notables on that night were second-year Mike Dolezal (8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots) and third-year Scott Fisher (12 points and 6 rebounds). Eight different Maroons scored, including two first-years, guard Jay Morelock and forward/center Clay Carmody, both of whom have been important role players in the Maroons' resurgence.
The Maroons completely dominated the Tartans in the first half. Holding Carnegie Mellon to a measly 28-percent field goal percentage, Chicago took a 44-26 lead into the locker room at half time. Execution in the first 20 minutes was sharp, aggressive, and cohesive. But they left a little of that alacrity in the changing room when they came out in the second half. After beginning where they left off and expanding their lead to 23 on a lay-up by second-year Brian Cuttica, the Maroons watched their lead dwindle to seven with just under four minutes left. Cuttica would come up again big to help revive his team, scoring four points in the last three minutes and collecting the final rebound. Fisher would aptly close the game out with an emphatic two-handed dunk with 35 seconds left to close out the game.
Friday's win, however, was only the overture to the Maroons' seasonal opus, their Sunday victory over Rochester University. The Yellow Jackets were the heavy favorite coming into the game; they had been ranked second nationally up until last week when their 13-game winning streak was snapped. Even with their loss, they entered the game ranked sixth nationally, and they had forced top-seeded Washington University into overtime Friday and lost only on a Washington three-point play with seven seconds of extra time left.
Neither team could exert dominance in the first half of play. The lead changed hands four times in the first 20 minutes alone and would change five more times in the first minutes of the second half. Rochester proved to be as aggressive as its reputation. In the first half alone, the Yellow Jackets collected six offensive boards and scored nine points on second chances. The Maroons stuck it out, however, and never allowed Rochester to open up a lead of more than six. With a final rally in the last 1:09 in the half, Chicago cut the lead to one as the half ended with the Maroons trailing, 31-32.
The second half was the pinnacle of the men's effort all year. Head Coach Mike McGrath said after the game that it "was the most focused and tough play we've had all year." For the first four minutes the game continued as it had in the first half. Reich would come out hot, scoring the Maroons' first six points of the half, twice giving the Maroons' short-lived leads. Finally, with 16:31 left in the game, Fisher would finish off a feed from second-year Justin Waldie to give the Maroons a 39-38 lead they would not relinquish. The lead would waver until the final 6:17, at which point Chicago would end the game on a 17-10 lead to put the game out of reach.
It was a multi-dimensional win for Chicago, a combination of both veteran leadership and contributions from surprising sources. Fisher and Reich remained the pillars of the Maroons' game. Each played 36 of the game's 40 minutes, and between Reich's 29 (including a four-point play in the second half) and Fisher's 10, the two were responsible for 54 percent of the total offense, as well as half of the team rebounds. Fisher's return, after missing the majority of this year's non-conference half of the season due to an injury, has been a huge factor for the Maroons' turnaround. Morelock explained, "Fish coming back has really helped....Inside it gives us another threat besides Derek [Reich]." Reich notwithstanding, Fisher has offered the most consistent play thus far this season and serves a perfect complement to relieve some of the pressure off the team's star.
The play of these two veterans would most likely have been all for naught had the Maroons not received help from one of the most unlikely players, guard Justin Waldie. Waldie came in off the bench after starting third-year Mike Lowney suffered a deep cut above his eye that took him out of most of the game. Waldie came in and sparked the Maroons with nine second-half points, including a critical three-point play with 4:22 left to play. After initially missing a jump shot, Waldie grabbed his own rebound, then kicked the ball out to Reich. Reich missed the open three-point attempt, but Waldie grabbed a second offensive board, and then converted the put-back while being fouled. Without Lowney in full health, it was essential that someone like Waldie step up and fill the gap. "Waldie was huge today," commented Carmody, "He brought a lot of energy [into the game]."
These two wins completely reset the parameters of this season for the Maroons. With the two wins this weekend and Rochester's loss to Washington University on Friday, Chicago stands second in the league. The UAA receives two automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, and so the Maroons now have a very realistic chance of returning to the big show after a year away. "Now we're playing for something," McGrath said after the win Sunday. "We're in a race. We're not the frontrunners like [we] were in past years, but we're in it." The UAA season continues at home this weekend with games against New York University on Friday and Brandeis University on Sunday.