Fourth-year Mike Dolezal proved to be, in fact, the best holiday gift the Maroons could have received.
Returning to the Maroon lineup after missing the past eight games with a back injury, Dolezal, a graduating fourth-year forward, nailed two clutch three pointers in the last three minutes of regulation to preserve the slim Maroon lead over Washington. The Bears, ranked second in preseason UAA polls, were within four with 20 seconds left, but first-year forward Nate Hainje pulled down the rebound in traffic. He nailed an ensuing free throw to clinch the Chicago win, 61-56.
Coming into the conference opener, Washington (8-4, 0-1 UAA) was the heavy favorite over the injury-stricken Maroons (5-7, 1-0). The Bears quickly found out, however, that conference play marked the start of a whole new season for Chicago.
"We got off to a good start and then struggled a little bit when we got hurt and played some good teams," head coach Mike McGrath said. "Now we have most everybody back and got off to a great start against the conference. We expect to be a factor in the UAA race, and to do that you have to win against good teams at home. We did that."
After four alternative runs by both teams to start the game, Dolezal's three-pointer four minutes in gave the Maroons the lead for good. Bears fourth-year guard Rob Keller had scored 9 out of his team's first 11 points. The Maroons responded to Keller's attack with a 15-4 run that propelled them to a 26-15 lead with four minutes left and a 12-point halftime lead.
Chicago's best play of the half came from Dolezal with less than two minutes left. His block of a Wash U shot was recovered by the Bears. He then stole a crossing pass, and drove the other way where he hit a reverse jumper. Dolezal had a similar offensive-defensive string early four minutes into the second half, when he followed a short-range jumper with a block on the other end.
"It was a contribution we expected to get out of Mike all year," said McGrath of Dolezal, whose back appears to have improved significantly. "It's tough when a senior has to miss eight games, because he really worked hard to get ready for this year. He, Brian Cuttica, and Justin Waldie really got this team focused on this season and ready to work."
Good interior defense kept Washington from finding quality opportunities, and the Bears only shot 11 percent from three-point range for the game. The Maroons dominated the first half of the contest statistically, shooting an amazing 58 percent from beyond the arc while limiting the Washington bears to 27 percent from the field. The Maroons also dominated the defensive boards 16-10.
Having built the early lead, Chicago was unable to maintain their dominance in the second half.
"I told our seniors at halftime it wasn't going to keep going that way," McGrath said. "Wash U missed some shots they can make. Some of it was our defense, some of it was them just missing. I wasn't sure that the reasons why we pulled ahead the first half were going to continue for 40 minutes. I told them that when it gets tighter, we have to make sure to not hang our heads or get down when they make good plays because they're good players and a good team."
The Maroon's strong interior defense collapsed, allowing the Bears to score four consecutive layups early in the second half. Third-year seven-foot center Mike Grunst's jumper cut the Maroon lead to one with four minutes left.
Enter Dolezal. The fourth-year took over, hitting two big three-pointers to build a two-possession margin.
"When they made their runs at two or three different points, we took the shots and then fought back," McGrath said.
Second-year guard Brandon Woodhead joined Dolezal as one of two Maroons to score in double figures, getting 11 points on three of six shooting. Keller lead the Bears in scoring with 14 points, but was held to only five points after his nine point outburst during the first seven minutes of the contest.
Next up on the men's basketball schedule are two weekend home matches with UAA rivals Emory (8-2, 1-0) and Case Western (3-8, 0-1). Chicago hosts Emory Friday night at 8 p.m. and Case at 1 p.m. on Sunday.