November 22, 2005

Men’s basketball good so far after Midway Classic sweep

It wasn’t easy. But it was a vintage 2002 performance for men’s basketball.

For the first time in three seasons, the Maroons got the season off on the right foot, sweeping their first two games to win the Midway Classic at Ratner. They locked down defensively in the last four minutes to turn a brawl against Colby (0–2) into a solid 64–53 victory Saturday and resisted a late rally in the championship game Sunday to take home the title with a 61–55 win over Rose-Hulman (1–1). Fourth-year front court maven Clay Carmody (10 ppg, 7.5 rpg) was named Midway Classic MVP, while his classmate forward Jason Hicks (8 ppg, 6 rpg) was picked for the all-tournament team.

The Maroons have made the final in the Classic for three of the past four seasons, but were beaten both in the first round by an Illinois Wesleyan team that went on to the Sweet 16 in 2003 and in the title game by the eventual national champion UW-Stevens Point Pointers last November.

“It’s always great to get off to a good start, and the tournament’s a great thing,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “We’re going to play five games in the next 11 days. We want to get better and keep finding ways to win. Still, we’re happy about how things went.”

Though they emerged triumphant at the end of the weekend, it wasn’t exactly easy going for the Maroons from the get-go. The White Mules scored first just ten seconds into Saturday’s game and matched the Maroons point-for-point for much of the rest of the way. Colby held as much as a five-point lead in the first half. Chicago was hampered by the need to keep third-year guard Brandon Woodhead, who ran into trouble with two early fouls, available for the closing minutes.

Carmody and third-year guard Jesse Meyer combined for 19 points before the break, but a layup by Colby second-year guard Mark Gaudet with only one second remaining left the Maroons trailing 37–36 as they entered the locker room.

“Offensively, that’s not a bad number. Defensively, we just did not play well,” Meyer said. “We didn’t have a lot of focus. At halftime, there was a huge emphasis on putting some stops together. I think we did that. After that, we just rebounded the hell out of them, and put a nice little run together at the end.”

Second-year wing Nate Hainje nailed a trey to open the scoring in the second, and Chicago began to bear down. The squad had 15 defensive rebounds and two steals after halftime. Though the Maroons struggled to stop game-leading scorer fourth-year forward Andy Jenkins (18 points) and were behind with as little as 4:30 left to go, they locked up tighter and tighter in their own end as the buzzer drew near. A pair of Woodhead free throws (seven points, four rebounds) gave them the lead for good at 3:52., and they shut out the Mules the rest of the way. Their final 12 points were all scored at the stripe.

“We really zeroed in and played better defense down the stretch. I think if you look at that game from the beginning to the end, we just got better defensively,” McGrath said. “I think doing what we were supposed to do and being more composed had a lot to do with it.”

“I think mentally, this team is stronger than it was last year. We got together and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to let this happen again. We’re not losing this game,’” Meyer said. “It was a big step that day, and a big step on Sunday.”

Their stepped-up efforts shone through in the stats. Colby shot 50.0% in the first half and 21.7% in the second, including just 7.7% from beyond the arc. The Maroons out-rebounded their visitors 48–22 and had 14 turnovers, eight of them after the break. Carmody came up big, leading the way a double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds).

“Offensive rebounding is one of those things that’s sort of like the snowball rolling down the hill. When you get one, it tends to energize you to keep going. We had a size advantage, and I think we went after it very eagerly,” McGrath said.

The win was a significant one for McGrath. With the victory, he recorded 100 wins as a head coach for Chicago, sixth most in program history.

“I was kind of surprised that other people knew about it. It was actually a really nice gesture, the seniors and [assistant coach Rusty] Lloyd mentioning it,” McGrath said. “But to me, it’s not a big thing. What’s fun for me is that we’ve won about 230 games over 12 years since I’ve been an assistant coach here. That’s a good run.””

Having advanced to the title game, the Maroons seemed determined not to get involved in another back-and-forth brawl. There was certainly no back-and-forth early against the Engineers. Chicago ripped off a 14–1 run in the early going for an 18–5 lead midway through the first half. Using their height to dominate in the paint and getting a number of second shots, the home team led Rose-Hulman by as much as 19 in the first half and dominated for most of the first 30 minutes.

Unfortunately, while the Engineers might have been down, they weren’t quite out. A flurry of jumpers and free throws midway through the second half kept the Engineers in the game. With less than two minutes to go, Rose-Hulman began to pose a serious threat, as a layup by second-year forward Jared Moore and a three-pointer from third-year guard Jason Bednarko cut the gap to a mere five points.

“I thought for a small stretch there we weren’t the quick ones to the loose balls, we weren’t controlling the boards. They came up with a few things, got some energy and got some life,” McGrath said. “We regrouped at the end. Even though we were struggling, I thought we composed ourselves and buckled down really well.”

“I think we just got complacent. We knew we were going to hang on, and we started settling for a lot of quick jump shots. We let them back into it,” Meyer said.

Bednarko’s trey proved to be just what Chicago needed to get their groove back. They recovered the hard-charging, make-each-possession-count style of play that they had used to build their lead in the first place. The squad was able to draw the necessary fouls and picked up four points on free-throw attempts by second-year forward Tim Reynolds and Meyer, who had a team-leading 11 on the night. While another three-point shot lifted the Engineers within four with 13 seconds left, they wouldn’t get the opportunities they needed to complete the comeback attempt.

“Had we been playing a better team, I don’t think we would have won. It was a wake-up call for us. We almost learned our lesson the hard way,” Meyer said.

“I would say that one of the positive things about both games is that they were two very different games, and we find a way to win. That’s basically the M.O. of how we lost some games last year, and finding a way to win games is always a good thing,” McGrath said.

The team will have no time to rest on their laurels. Due to its unusual winter break schedule, Chicago will put its 2–0 record to the test three times in the next week. The Maroons play host to Lake Forest (0–1) tonight and Carleton (no record) Saturday before traveling to Madison for a showdown with Edgewood (2–0) Sunday.