It was a bittersweet weekend for the five seniors on the roster of the men’s basketball team. In all likelihood, the last two games marked the final home appearances of their illustrious careers. But after the way they played those careers might be a little bit longer than they planned.
Though there were a few scary moments along the way, the 23rd-ranked Maroons (18–4, 9–2) took care of business in their final home stand of the regular season. Case Western (4–18, 0–11) smelled an upset in the Friday nighter, but lockdown defense in the second half allowed Chicago to pull off a 77–73 comeback win. In the Senior Day showdown two days later, the fourth-years put the team on their shoulders and rocked Emory (8–14, 2–9) for the 89–71 victory. Fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead passed the 1,000-point and 300-assist marks and helped his squad keep pace in the UAA race.
It was a brilliant last hurrah for the first class to spend all four years defending the Ratner Athletic Center. Between Woodhead’s milestones, guard Jesse Meyer’s continued progress toward the single-season treys crown, a Sunday double-double from newly anointed starter forward Jason Vismantas, a 14-point showing from guard Drew Adams the same afternoon, and a 10-point, 6-assist, 3-rebound weekend from guard Derek Brannon, the ’07 crew demonstrated just how much this team is going to miss them.
“Brandon’s as good a guard as there is in this league, Jesse’s as good a shooter as there is in this league, Drew and Vis have filled their roles, and DB has been a spark off of the bench,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “But you can’t even know [their impact] just watching us play. The more significant loss will be the leadership they provide in the locker room and in practice every day.”
Fortunately, they won’t have to start dealing with that loss quite yet. The pair of wins allowed Chicago to stay tied for first in the league with 11th-ranked Wash U (18–3, 9–2) and bettered their position for a possible at-large berth.
“Obviously the prime focus was to win the game, but to supplement that with nice performances by all the seniors was very enjoyable for myself and for the entire team,” Woodhead said. “We hope that Emory wasn’t our last home game at Ratner, since our goal is to win the UAA, which could possibly lead to hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.”
While the veterans rightfully stole the show Sunday, the weekend started off with a display of how bright the future is for the Maroons.
The young Spartans had come close to knocking off Chicago at Cleveland January 14 and were determined to complete the job this time around. Third-year center Mason Conrad barreled his way through the Maroons’ D on the inside with 10 points in the first half while second-year guard Steve Young ripped their perimeter to shreds with 14 over the first 20, helping their squad to a 43–34 lead at the break. Case shot a sizzling 64.3 percent from the floor to put the Maroons in a big hole for the second game in a row.
“With the personnel we have on the floor, we have some problems matching up with some other teams. I thought Case did a good job of taking advantage of that,” McGrath said. “When we’re focused, we can get around those deficiencies.”
“I think this weekend we saw both how poorly we can play defensively but at the same time how well we can play when we focus on getting stops as opposed to just scoring the ball,” Meyer said. “It was a big wake-up call that let us know we have to stop somebody if we are going to win this league.”
But as they did in Manhattan, Chicago bore down on defense in the second half, this time with far better results. Though they were down by 13 points with 15:20 to go, a classic effort under their own basket from third-year forward Nate Hainje and first-year guard Jake Pancratz stopped the bleeding and helped the Maroons start chipping away.
The pair did more than just tie up the Spartans on their own end. After pulling down three points between them in the first half, Hainje had 13 points and Pancratz 10 in the back end. The Maroons regained the lead at 68–67 after a pair of Woodhead layups at the 4:51 mark. Pancratz then beat back Conrad’s single-handed attempt to keep his team alive with a layup and a jumper, putting Chicago up 75–73 with 10 seconds on the board. Hainje iced a pair of free throws with two seconds left to finish things off. Young and Woodhead shared the game-high scoring lead at 19, but the victory belonged to Woodhead’s younger teammates.
“Jake played a tremendous game on Friday night, and on Sunday too. One of the things about this team is that guys just compete. It doesn’t matter how old they are or how much experience they have, they just play. That is a credit to the tone we’ve all set as a team,” Meyer said.
After being handed framed player portraits and flowers in Senior Day ceremonies, the fourth-years converted the emotion of the day into points on the scoreboard against Emory on Sunday. While fourth-year forward Eric Barvin proved a worthy foe with 17 total points and the guard pair of fourth-year guard Adrian Sosa and third-year guard Spiros Ferderigos turned it on in the second half for 25 between them, the game was essentially decided with 13 minutes left. A Vistmantas layup and yet another Meyer trey broke the back of a 14–3 Eagles run to put the Maroons up 59–53, and it was the home team from there.
Despite slumping a bit from the floor (4-for-13), Woodhead cleaned up at the free throw stripe and left the game with exactly 1,000 points to his credit after a trey with 2:34 left. Meyer led the way with a game-high 19 points, and Vismantas earned 11 points, 10 rebounds, and the thanks of his grateful teammates for largely taking Barvin out of the game after halftime. Adams continued his season-long hot streak, going five-for-eight and three-for-four beyond the arc, while Brannon hustled for five assists in 12 minutes.
The Maroons are Appalachian-bound next weekend, taking on Rochester (16–6, 7–4) in the Yellowjackets’ own house on Friday and bracing Carnegie Mellon (12–9, 5–6) in Pittsburgh on Sunday. If they can survive the third-place Jackets and the always-tough Tartans, they’ll have a clear path to the NCAAs.
“I think it is very dangerous to look ahead and feel comfortable at any point during a season, especially in the UAA where parity has been common the past few years,” Woodhead said. “Our attention is focused on preparing for a difficult road trip to Rochester and Carnegie Mellon. Each of the next three games will be challenging.”
“The two games we have this weekend will be dramatic in the race,” McGrath said.