The Maroon men were itching for a game that meant something. The basketball preseason had been exceptionally long, and, coming into this weekend's Midway Classic, Chicago "just wanted to play somebody," according to head coach Mike McGrath. The team's energy and eagerness showed as it posted a pair of early wins and captured the championship in the season's kickoff tournament. The Maroons easily defeated Kenyon College on Saturday, 93-58, to move on to the championship game on Sunday, where they beat out Thiel College 84-64.
Saturday's game was a case of Chicago being in a different class than its opponent. The attending crowd of around 425 fans watched Chicago dominate its opponent, displaying superior skill and energy. Senior captain Derek Reich noted, "practice in the last week had been a little sluggish, but we were looking forward to playing." Reich, the team's star and NCAA Division III preseason player of the year, had a solid game, collecting 20 points and 12 rebounds. For his part, Reich was more impressed with the all-around effort of the team: "I was happy to see everyone scoring. Four guys had double-digits [in points scored]." The other Maroon players to score more than ten were second-year Mike Dolezal (19), first-year Clay Carmody (16), and third-year Scott Fisher (15).
Dolezal had a notable game. He finished with seven baskets in eight attempts, including an impressive four of five from three-point range. He also had two steals and two blocks. Making his Chicago debut, Carmody, a 6'7" forward from Fullerton, California, showed himself to be a potential impact player.
Saturday night was also marked by a number of returning players stepping into larger roles than they had played in the previous season. The second-years, who last year played a peripheral role, established themselves as a capable supporting cast. Sophomore guards Bryan Fitzgerald and Seyi "Che" Oyenuga both played nearly a complete half each in spelling second-year Brian Cuttica, now a full-fledged starter this season, and third-year Mike Lowney.
The Maroons actually trailed the Kenyon Lords for almost the first eight minutes of the game. Kenyon came out shooting well, making six of its first eight shots, including three of four from behind the arc. With 12:13 left in the half, however, Reich converted a layup while being fouled to tie the game at 15 and then made his foul shot, giving the Maroons a lead they would never relinquish.
Leading by as many as 39 in the second half, McGrath took the opportunity to initiate his five first-years during the closing minutes. "It was good to see the freshmen play," Reich remarked. "Last year the freshmen didn't get that chance. Now with such few seniors and juniors, they're being forced to step up in practice." Those that did stick around at the end of the game were rewarded by seeing freshman guard Jay Morelock hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer for the first points of his college career. "It was a fun way to get into the scorer's book," Morelock said afterward. "It's tough coming off the bench, especially to leave senior year [in high school] and be at the bottom of the bracket... but I think it makes you buy more into the team concept."
While Saturday's win was a chance to spread the scoring, Sunday's championship victory over the Thiel Tomcats could instead have been called the Derek Reich show. Reich scored 40 points in 30 minutes of play, hitting 13 of 24 shots and four of eight three-point attempts. Reich, who was named the tournament MVP, set the tone right from the start by blocking a Tomcat forward's jumper, one of a pair of blocks he had on the night. From there, Reich became the go-to guy for the Maroons. Finishing the first half with seventeen, Reich then scored the Maroons' first ten points of the second half. He also finished with 11 rebounds and an assist.
While playing secondary roles, other Maroons stepped in to ensure the victory. Cuttica hit two three-pointers to complement his seven assists on the night. Though Dolezal had a tough night from the floor, shooting one for ten in the championship, he did help the team by grabbing 11 rebounds (including three offensive boards) and coming up with five blocks. Carmody finished his second game with eight points, including a perfect four for four from the foul line.
The team did well to take care of the little nuances like getting to loose balls, and, while the execution was not as precise as McGrath would have liked, it was sufficient to bring the Maroons an important pair of wins. Last year's Classic was marred by a first-round 80-70 overtime loss to Beloit College, a loss that shocked a Chicago team then ranked first in the country. Even if the team is not playing at the level it will need to play at when it starts its UAA schedule, the victory is still a sweet one. The Maroons next play Wheaton College at home on Tuesday of this week before traveling south this weekend to Texas to play a pair of games against the Trinity and Southwestern basketball teams.