[img id="80363" align="alignleft"] In the penultimate chapter of the regular season, the Maroons peaked at the perfect time and put the pieces in place for a storybook climax.
With a dominating 81–62 win over NYU (10–14, 3–10 UAA) and a 74–66 come-from-behind victory over sixth-ranked Brandeis (19–5, 9–4), Chicago (17–7, 10–3) gave home crowds a taste of its versatility over the weekend, and set up a UAA Championship grudge match with fourth-ranked Wash U (19–5, 10–3) for next Saturday at Ratner.
Back home after two weekends away, Chicago looked eager to show off for the fans, erupting to a 15–1 lead and holding the hapless Violets to just a free throw in the opening six minutes. A time-out helped the visitors put some points on the board, but a Herculean effort from fourth-year forward Nate Hainje ensured that NYU wouldn’t come within eight points of the Maroons.
Going 80 percent from the field in the first stanza, Hainje put up 23 points, highlighted by two treys in one minute and a three-point play after being fouled on an early layup. As a whole, the team hit 60 percent of its first half shots to lead 43–33 when the buzzer sent a relieved NYU to the lockers for a chance to regroup.
“I think the key to our offensive success against NYU was just our shooting,” Hainje said. “We hit a lot of shots, and it just felt like almost anything any one put up was going in ,and I think that gave us even more confidence on the offensive end.”
Setting the tone for continued aggression in the second half, second-year guard Jake Pancratz nailed two threes in the first two minutes. A free throw from fourth-year forward Tim Reynolds gave the Maroons a 21-point lead with little more than three minutes remaining when head coach Mike McGrath pulled most of his starters and the Maroons showed some mercy. Hainje’s layup with 2:27 left completed a 30-point effort, his career best, and Chicago dribbled out the clock to seal one of their largest wins of the season.
“I believe that we have been playing with a lot of confidence for several weeks now,” McGrath said, “and that definitely helped us keep our composure while Brandeis held the lead on Sunday. The win Friday definitely added to our confidence level.”
After using the Violets as target practice, the Maroons knew that sixth-ranked Brandeis would be a more serious challenge.
“We knew Sunday’s game was going to be more physical,” Hainje said, “and I think we were confident in ourselves not only because of Friday’s performance, but because we had beaten Brandeis before so we knew we could play with them.”
Chicago quickly went up 5–0 after tip-off, but determined defense from Brandeis kept the Maroons to just two points in five minutes as the Judges grabbed the biggest lead of the day for either team with a 16–2 run.
Two fast Maroon treys trimmed the visitor’s lead, though, and 11 points from third-year guar Matt Corning in the next five minutes tied the game, 24–24. Trading jabs in a physical end to the half, both teams put up points from the paint. Even though Hainje nailed a jumper at the buzzer, the Judges came out on top and headed into the lockers leading 39–36.
Trying to surge back after the break, Chicago tied it up four times, but couldn’t stop Brandeis from pulling away again after each attempt. Finally, Hainje, who had 24 points on the day, sunk a three-pointer to put the Maroons up with six minutes to go, but Brandeis quickly countered with a trey of their own.
As the clock ticked down, neither squad managed to score in a two minute stretch, but Corning poured in a jumper at 3:57 to put Chicago ahead for good. The home team’s margin was a razor thin 67–65 with time winding down until Brandeis was forced to foul to gain possession. Accuracy at the free throw line gave Chicago six points in under 20 seconds and a comfortable 74–66 margin to close out the day.
Taking advantage of Brandeis’s physical style of play, Chicago drew enough fouls to step up to the charity stripe 27 times and converted 21 of those attempts. The Maroons played smart defense, only sending the visitors to the line 16 times.
“We knew they had some big kids that aren’t afraid to be physical,” Hainje said. “Defensively we knew we were going to have to move our feet and keep our hands off, and that’s what we tried to do out there.”
The smart play and fast-paced offense that the Maroons exhibited this weekend will be key to topping the Bears next Saturday. With the two teams boasting identical records in conference play, the winner will take the conference crown and the post-season spot that goes with it.
Last year, Chicago led in the standings and headed to St. Louis hoping to take the outright championship. Wash U’s 79–74 win made the two squads co-champions, but because the Bears led the season series 2–0, they took the UAA’s automatic NCAA berth, and the Maroons had to settle for a last minute at-large slot.
This time, Chicago won’t be sharing the wealth.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to compete for the UAA title,” McGrath said. “The fact that both our team and the women’s team will be playing for the championship on the same day should make it even more fun. We hope that the student body comes out and has a good time supporting the teams.”