After losing their conference opener, a two-game road trip against two squads not expected to be in the UAA title mix offered both danger and opportunity for men’s basketball. At one end of the spectrum, they could fall victim to the trap games and let one bad shooting night snowball into a season-killing, three-game losing streak. At the other, they could restore confidence and boost their postseason chances with a pair of convincing victories.
In a triumphal march through Atlanta and Cleveland, the Maroons (11–3, 2–1) definitively chose the latter path. After recovering their shooting touch in a 99–75 thumping of Emory (7–6, 1–2) on Friday, Chicago survived a gutsy performance from the never-say-die Case Western Spartans (4–10, 0–3) for a 69–67 win Sunday afternoon. Four different players recorded a total of seven double-digit scoring performances as the team proved that when it’s on its game, it’s nearly impossible to hold off.
It was a needed reminder after the men were held to a 23.1 percent shooting mark in the first half of a 70–59 loss to 13th-ranked Wash U (12–1, 3–0) at home January 6. The Maroons were down by 11 before they scored in that game and were never really competitive. They were looking to prove some things to themselves against some unsurprisingly tough opponents. While the Eagles and Spartans were considered likely candidates to bring up the rear in the league, it’s almost a cliché to say that there are no truly easy games in the UAA. After being manhandled by the Maroons, Emory pushed the Bears to the limit in a 78–73 loss Sunday.
“I think everyone in our league is going to compete and this weekend showed that,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “But we had to get our swagger back and not let the disappointment of the Wash U loss linger too long, and we did that this weekend.”
It wasn’t clear from the tip at the Woodruff Center that everything was going to go Chicago’s way. The Eagles’ top-flight guards, third-year Spiros Ferderigos and fourth-year Adrian Sosa, established themselves right from the beginning, hitting three treys in the first 2:40 to help build a 12–4 lead. Ferderigos took advantage of a tightly called game to finish with a game high of 27 while Sosa chipped in 22, putting the size-challenged but defensive-minded Maroons in the unusual position of being victimized by an opponent’s backcourt. However, the Maroons soon heated up, shooting 53.8 percent from the floor in the first half to enter the locker room up 41–29.
“We said going into the season there would be four or five games this year when we were just going to shoot very well, and four or five games where we wouldn’t shoot it as well and would have some problems,” McGrath said.
Things only got better after the break, as fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead went for 12 points in the second stanza to finish with 19 on the game. Meyer added eight to finish with 19 and eight rebounds while, third-year forward Nate Hainje went four-for-six to end the evening with 14 points and eight boards to his name after only managing one bucket from the floor in the first 20 minutes. First-year guard Jake Pancratz recorded the highest scoring total of his young career, ripping Emory for 17 points off the bench.
“I feel like the main strength of our team is that we have so many weapons.” Hainje said. “And it’s that versatility that makes it difficult to beat us.”
It looked like it would be more of the same two days later as Chicago continued to sizzle from the perimeter. Only a buzzer-beating trey by second-year guard Steve Young (11 points, 5 rebounds) kept the Maroons from leading by double-digits at halftime again, with the visitors hitting 15 of 30 shots before the break. However, the Spartans continued to bang the boards hard, winning the battle for the glass 41 to 29 put some strong runs together in the second half.
The hosts, paced by third-year center Mason Conrad (led all scorers with 21 points, 6 rebounds), clawed their way back to narrow the gap to 46–45 with almost 14 minutes left to play. The Maroons responded admirably with a downtown bomb by Pancratz and a three-point play from second-year forward Adam Machones to build their lead back up to seven. Solid defense by the Maroons forced Case to commit 14 fouls in the second frame to give the visitors 16 free throw shots. Woodhead scored 5 of his team-leading 18 points from the line, and Chicago had 10 points from the stripe.
“We did a pretty good job of spreading the floor, Brandon and Nate especially. We put Case in some bad situations,” McGrath said.
This would prove critical in the closing minutes as Case first-year guard Antwain Coward brought his team within one with 2:36 to go. Meyer (15 points, 3 steals) went to the line on a Young foul and hit one of two shots, then nailed a jumper in the paint, running the score to 67–63 Chicago with 1:53 left. Another made free throw by fourth-year forward Jason Vismantas put the Maroons up by five with 40 seconds left, and all but finished the game. With Hainje recording another 14-point night on 5-for-12 shooting, the Maroons shot 45.3 percent for the game for a blistering 53.2 mark on the weekend.
Chicago would be well advised to keep up its efficient play going into this weekend’s action. Despite losing all five starters from last year’s UAA champions, Carnegie Mellon will bring a 9–4 record with a 2–1 UAA mark into Ratner tonight. It only gets tougher Sunday afternoon, when Rochester (11–3, 2–1) brings deadly third-year big men Jon Onyiriuka and Uche Ndubizu to the floor. If the Maroons can keep up their lights-out shooting long enough to survive the carnage that the duo will create in the paint, they’ll be well positioned to contend for the league title.