[img id="80390" align="alignleft"] Men’s basketball got to sleep easily Saturday night. Following a win that afternoon at Ratner, Chicago stood alone at the top of the UAA standings and had clinched its spot at the NCAA tournament.
Proving that it ain’t over till it’s over, the 23rd-ranked Maroons (18–7, 11–3 UAA) fought back from an early deficit against seventh-ranked Wash U (19–6, 10–4) to take a one-point lead by halftime and a 74–66 victory by the final buzzer. The comeback effort over the Bears was a fitting end to a regular season in which Chicago had to adjust to four new starters and rebound from a 2–4 start to return to the playoffs.
“I think going into this year people assumed we wouldn’t be as good as we were last year,” said fourth-year forward Nate Hainje, whose 19 points led the four Maroons scoring in double figures Saturday. “I think as the season wore on, especially in the last half of league play, teams knew that we were going to be tough to beat whether it was at home or on the road.”
No matter how far they’ve come since opening day, though, the South Siders were sure to have their hands full trying to contain Wash U and fourth-year forward Troy Ruths (19.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Ruths scored the first basket of the game and the Bears followed him on a 13–2 run that put the visitors in the driver’s seat for most of the half.
A couple of turnovers by the squad helped to keep Wash U in charge, but the Maroons didn’t unravel on the court like they did during the 76–50 blowout in St. Louis in the team’s January meeting.
“We didn’t get off to a good start, and we didn’t get rattled,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “We just kept playing.”
Letting his team find its rhythm, McGrath didn’t call a timeout the entire half. Eventually the Maroons started doing what they do best, passing around the perimeter until someone got an opening to drive to the post, or someone had room to sink a three-pointer.
“As the season has gone on, I think we have just learned how to play together and really know each other well now,” Hainje said.
Wash U’s lead started shrinking, and three straight treys from the Maroons in a two-minute span tied the game with 2:07 left before the break. Hainje sank the first bomb from downtown, followed by shots from second-year guard Jake Pancratz and finally second-year forward John Kinsella to make it 33–33. Chicago finished the day with a 44.4 shooting percentage from beyond the arc and scored 36 of its 74 points on threes.
Before heading to the locker room, Pancratz added another trey to give the Maroons their first advantage on the day at 36–33. A foul by Kinsella sent Ruths to the line, where he drained both of his free throws, cutting Chicago’s lead down to a point at 36–35. It was a slim margin, but the South Siders would have the upper hand the rest of the way, relying on their long-range power to pull away from the Bears after intermission.
As the second stanza began, a pair of threes from third-year forward Adam Machones jump-started an 11–2 run over the first three minutes that gave Chicago its first double-digit cushion at 47–37.
Machones went 4–4 from beyond the arc on the day, setting him up for a career-high 18 points. One of the new starters this year, Machones has become a consistent contributor, chipping in 7.7 ppg and pulling down 4.1 rpg, the team’s second-best rebounding average.
“Adam gave us a huge lift,” McGrath said. “One of the things that I’ve felt all year is that we have a lot of weapons.”
Between his 18 points, 19 from Hainje, 15 from Pancratz, and 11 from third-year guard Matt Corning, the Maroons were able to keep ahead of Ruths (24 points), third-year forward Tyler Nading (12), and second-year guard Aaron Thompson (18) as the second half wore on.
A nosebleed kept Ruths off the floor for four-and-a-half minutes, giving the squad some room to increase their lead. When he returned, back-to-back blocks by Corning and fourth-year forward Tim Reynolds with 9:20 to go and another stop by a quadruple team of Maroons limited his contributions.
“I think we played solid post defense,” Hainje said. “Even though Ruths had a lot of points, he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well.”
“The way we were able to sit down and get stops when we needed them in the second half was a key to our win,” Machones added.
But before they could walk away with the victory that would guarantee them one of the 38 automatic bids to the NCAA and their second-straight postseason appearance, the Maroons would have to break a tie and sustain threats to their lead.
A trey by Thompson evened things up at 56–56 with 7:33 left on the clock, and he struck from three-point range again to slice Chicago’s advantage to one with 1:21 remaining. The Maroons responded by setting up Hainje, who nailed a no-doubt-about-it three that iced the game for the South Siders.
Ahead 70–66 with 49 seconds to tick away, the squad was finished scrambling and had the win locked up. Kinsella and Pancratz each sunk a pair of free throws to cap off the scoring in the 74–66 final.
With Saturday’s win, the Maroons laid their claim to the title of best team in the league, a distinction that was left up in the air after they shared last year’s crown with the Bears. This year marked the fifth time in UAA history that the season finale between Chicago and Wash U has determined the conference champs. From here, the squad takes on UW–Stevens Point (22–6), the 2004 and 2005 D-III champions in the first round hosted by the University of St. Thomas (23–4).
“We’re playing good basketball right now, so we’re excited for a chance to get up there and compete,” McGrath said.