If 90 percent of the game is half mental, then men’s basketball proved this weekend that it has the mental toughness to compete in a league that promises to bring its fair share of ups and downs.
Coming off a 76–50 blowout loss to fourth-ranked Wash U (12–2, 3–0 UAA) in their first conference game, the Maroons might have been feeling a little low on morale. The squad found the perfect cure for any winter blues with a pair of double-digit wins at Ratner this weekend. Chicago took care of Case (7–7, 0–3) 76–65 on Friday before dispatching Emory (8–6, 1–2) 91–65 on Sunday to improve to 9–5 with a 2–1 UAA mark.
“I thought we played pretty well both games,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “I thought offensively we shot the ball pretty well back-to-back for the first time all year. I thought we were better for longer periods of time than we have been all year defensively. Both teams could have been really hard for us to guard. I thought we did a good job defensively on making it tough on them.”
In the game against the Spartans, the Maroons’ solid half-court pressure defense disrupted Case’s flow on offense right from the start. Chicago forced numerous turnovers, creating fastbreak opportunities and opening up a 12–8 lead five and a half minutes into play.
Second-year point guard Jake Pancratz anchored the tenacious defense, forcing his counterpart to turn the ball over several times and take ill-advised shots that led to easy scoring chances for the Maroons.
“I think it is mainly because of both the scouting report and the adjustments we make prior to the game,” said Pancratz on his strong outing. “I tend to get excited when I see that the opposing point guard is their leading scorer or creates a lot of their offense.”
Seven minutes into the game, the Maroons had set up and were executing this winning strategy, but the most dramatic example of its effectiveness came with 12:58 left on the clock and the squad protecting to a 12–8 advantage.
Stealing a pass to the wing, third-year guard Matt Corning broke for Chicago’s frontcourt. Corning blew by the only Spartan with a chance of stopping him, deflecting the foul as he threw down a slam dunk.
The shot electrified Ratner’s Beach Night crowd, but Mcgrath called it just one of the many good plays exhibited on the night.
“It was two points,” Mcgrath said, laughing. “When push comes to shove, I think that there were a lot of good plays made when we made shots. That one just stood out a little bit.”
Chicago continued to drain buckets following the dunk and eventually forced the visitors to trade in a man defense for a 2–3 zone. The Maroons successfully found holes in the new formation but were unable to capitalize, missing numerous three-point opportunities for a 31.3 shooting percentage from beyond the arc. Despite the trouble firing from downtown, the South Siders went into the locker room ahead of Case by a 33–23 margin.
Back from the break, the Spartans started chipping away at the score and came to within four points of tying the Maroons. Both teams answered basket for basket until, with 6:26 left, Chicago knocked in the first of three consecutive treys for an 18-point advantage and the biggest spread of the game. The flurry of three-pointers proved to be the final dagger through the Spartans’ armor. Case responded with a 10–2 run, but it was too little too late as Chicago held on for the 76–65 win.
Friday’s triumph over the Spartans shows how far the Maroons have come since opening the 2007–2008 campaign. With fourth-year forward and preseason All-American Nate Hainje held to only 11 points in a 4–11 effort from the field on the night, the Maroons rallied to pull off the win.
Earlier in the year a squad could have shut down Chicago by stopping Hainje, but a full-fledged offense has nixed that game plan. For his part, Hainje manages to contribute even when opponents start blocking his shots.
“Nate is a complete basketball player,” McGrath said. “We need him to score points for us, but when you look at it, the passing and the rebounding is what makes him one of the better players in the league.”
Taking on Emory Sunday, Chicago was much more consistent in shooting, showing off its front-running ability once again en route to a 18–5 lead. Their excellent ball movement led to open shots, with Hainje taking full advantage and scoring 9 of his game-high 19 points during that span.
Again, the Maroons’ opponents switched to a zone defense to try and stop the squad’s seemingly effortless ability to score. The strategy failed miserably as Chicago repeatedly found the open man and knocked down a total of 15 three-pointers on the day. Second-year forward John Kinsella set the tone when he sunk three consecutive baskets, all treys, for the team.
Apparently frustrated at his team’s inability to stop anyone, coach Jason Zimmerman of the Eagles lashed out at one of the referees looking for anything to motivate his team. This resulted in a technical and after the converted free throw by Pancratz, the Maroons led 45–23; well on their way to a decisive win.
In the second half, the Maroons displayed their killer instincts as they continued to step on the accelerator and connect from beyond the arc. Emory, like Case, played better in the second half, but unlike the Spartans, was crushed by the Maroons by the final score of 91–65.
Excellent shooting and great ball movement were the story of the day with the Maroons nailing a season best of 54.5 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from long distance. In addition, they matched their highs in made field goals and assists with 30 and 26 for the year. The upsurge goes along with a squad that has rebounded from its 3–5 start to win six of its last seven games.
The turnaround couldn’t be better timed with the grind of UAA play still ahead in a conference that has three teams ranked in the top five of DIII.
“I think we have some more strides to make. The games we won were good. The game we lost was a great team,” McGrath said. “Unfortunately, for us to have a chance to get to where we want us to get to, we have to beat great teams. Hopefully we will get ourselves to the point where not only do we continue to beat good teams, but find a way to beat some great teams.”
Up next for the Maroons is a Friday thriller versus second-ranked Brandeis (12–2, 2–1).
“They’re going to be one of the best teams we’ve faced up to this point, and it is a road game, so it is going to be difficult,” Hainje said. “The keys for us will be to handle their press and their pressure, and defensively we need to keep their guards in front of us and make sure not to give them good angles for posts.”