A year ago, men’s basketball overcame a slow start to lead the UAA, and this time around, the song remains the same. Knocking off a top-five team for the second week in a row, the unranked Maroons became unlikely conference contenders on Sunday as they moved into the top of the UAA standings.
After falling 74–60 to a well prepared Carnegie Mellon (13–5, 3–4 UAA) Friday, Chicago (12–6, 5–2) rebounded in a big way as they caught third-ranked Rochester (16–2, 5–2) by surprise, swatting down the unsuspecting Yellowjackets 74–65 in front of their home crowd. The upset gave the South Siders a share of the conference lead, along with Rochester and the top-ranked Bears.
Starting their second road weekend in a row in Pittsburgh, the Maroons were in the thick of it throughout a roller-coaster first half that saw eight lead changes. A rash of scoring right off the buzzer put Chicago up 12–6 early, thanks to an eight-point mad minute from third-year guard Matt Corning.
Draining a three with only four minutes to go before the half, second-year point guard Jake Pancratz put his squad up by five, but this margin would prove to be the largest Chicago would enjoy for the rest of the match as the Tartans went on an 11–2 run to head into the locker room up by four.
After the break, the back-and-forth pace of the game had taken a toll on the visitors, while Carnegie kept up its energy. Chicago’s scoring slumped to 26 percent from the field in the second stanza as the team missed all 10 of its three-point attempts.
With nine minutes left in the game, Carnegie had exploded to an 18-point lead, and Chicago couldn’t reel the Tartans to within less than 13 as the clock wound down.
“We got off to a slow start in the second half,” head coach Mike McGrath said, “which gave them incredibly high energy.
“I think the game against CMU had a lot to do with their focus and energy, as opposed to something we lacked. Carnegie played very well. They played very well defensively and did not give us many good looks. They were very active on the perimeter, which was also shown in the box score of their game against Wash U.”
Eager to shake off the loss, the Maroons headed to Rochester to face a squad that boasted a 13-game home court winning streak and was high off a momentum that began with besting the league-leading Bears 73–70.
The contest began at a refreshingly slow pace, with the two squads combining for only 12 points in the opening seven minutes.
Enjoying a few small leads as the score toggled back and forth for much of the half, Chicago didn’t take control until a huge play from fourth-year forward Tim Reynolds gave the Maroons a lead they refused to relinquish. Energized from making a game-opening three as the shot clock expired, Reynolds drained another trey while drawing a foul to break a tie with six minutes remaining in the first. Reynolds hit his free throw, capping a four-point play that put Chicago up 30–26. The squad nailed half of their three-point attempts, markedly improved over their shooting only two days before.
“Tim played extremely well,” fourth-year forward Nate Hainje said. “I think his four-point play was a big momentum swing. It’s hard to go on the road and win, especially there, and I think that play reassured us and let everyone else in the building know that we weren’t going away.”
Fighting for momentum heading into halftime, the Jackets brought the game to within a point on several possessions, but Corning’s three in the final minute gave the Maroons some insurance as the buzzer rang.
Maintaining their high level of play throughout the game this time, Chicago’s hard-nosed defense protected the lead, as Hainje, the game’s high scorer with 22 points, grabbed nine defensive rebounds to limit Rochester’s offense.
“We played very well in terms of our defensive game plan and shooting the ball,” McGrath said. “The fact that one of their top players also got in foul trouble worked to our advantage.”
Fourth-year guard Jeff Juron had fouled out, and fourth-year forward Uche Ndubizu was one away from ejection. Capitalizing on the Yellowjackets’ penalties, the Maroons shot 84 percent on free throws, bringing in 21 points from the line, 16 in the second half alone. In contrast, smart play from the Maroons only surrendered six points, a free-throw margin that was enough to singlehandedly cost Rochester the game.
The Maroons’ wide attack also confused the home team. Along with Hainje, three other Maroons ended up in double-digit scoring, with Reynolds’s 15 matching his career high.
“I thought we played smart in the game against Rochester,” Hainje said. “We knew what we needed to do on defense and executed that well, and we played our game on offense and didn’t let them force us to play a different way.”
Getting a chance to prove that their success is not a fluke, Chicago replays the Yellowjackets at home this Friday as it begins its second tour of the UAA
With tough rematches against Rochester, Brandeis (14–4, 4–3), and Wash U (14–4, 4–2), all at home, the Maroons are in the best position among the three conference leaders to claim an outright title and the postseason bid that comes with it.