November 27, 2007

Early weaknesses apparent as men’s basketball splits weekend

After a disappointing loss in the final game of last weekend’s Midway Classic, the Maroons had another chance to grab an early season tournament title on Sunday.

Advancing to the championship game in the DePauw Tournament after easily besting Transylvania (1–2) 89–75 Saturday, the Maroons, for the second weekend in a row, showed difficulty in keeping themselves in close games. One basket from the lead at halftime, Chicago came back from the break only to slide in the final minutes as DePauw (4–0) went on to an 81–67 victory and handed the Maroons their second loss of the season.

Last year, Chicago’s second defeat didn’t come until after Christmas, when the squad dropped to 7–2, and so this year’s .500 mark is unfamiliar territory for a group that enjoyed so much success last winter.

Trailing from the second minute of the contest with DePauw, the Maroons fell behind by as much as 12 points with only five minutes remaining before halftime. A four-minute scoring flurry ensued as Chicago bested its hosts 14–0 to pull ahead on a layup from third-year guard Matt Corning. Unable to keep this margin heading into the locker room, however, the South Siders gave up a three pointer at the buzzer to trail by one at the midway point.

Hitting the ground running after the break, DePauw quickly extended its lead to eight before a pair of successful free throws from Corning briefly stopped the Tigers in their tracks. As DePauw’s margin fluctuated, Chicago reduced the lead to within five points with as many minutes remaining, but was outscored 14–5 down the stretch as the home team sealed its victory.

Much of Chicago’s failure to keep up offensively can be attributed to DePauw’s staunch defense on fourth-year forward Nate Hainje, normally a prolific force in the front court. Tough coverage from the Tigers limited Hainje to only one field goal, a layup midway through the first period, and the rest of the senior’s six points came on free throws.

“DePauw did an extremely good job at limiting Nate’s looks at the basket, which limited his numbers,” head coach Mike McGrath said.

With Hainje as the focus of the Tiger’s defense, Corning took the reins of the Maroon offense, picking up a game-high 26 points, including three of Chicago’s five treys.

Although a tough Tiger defense kept the South Siders scoring opportunities down, DePauw ultimately gained the advantage on defensive errors by the Maroons.

Limiting the hosts to a field-goal percentage of 40 in the opening stanza, Chicago gave the Tigers much better looks in the second half, where their accuracy skyrocketed to 69.6 percent. This dead-on aim racked up 52 points for DePauw in the period, the most the Maroons have conceded this year.

“The major factor in our losses was not physical stamina, but rather a lack of mental focus defensively,” McGrath said, referring to both the DePauw game and last week’s loss to Trinity. “Against good teams we must continue to understand that every defensive possession is vital and we must maintain focus on little things. We lost a lot of experience from last year and hopefully this is something we will fix.”

Despite the setback served up by the Tigers, the Maroons looked much more familiar in their easy first round win over Transylvania. Leading from the opening minutes, Chicago suffered a brief scare when the Pioneers tied it up 17–17 midway through the first, but the Maroons turned to their characteristic perimeter dominance and drilled two threes within a minute of each other to take the lead for good at 25–17.

Up by 14 at the half, Chicago shot 73 percent from the field after the break to counter a staggering 34 points from third-year forward Joey Verax, who scored 20 in the second stanza. Unhindered by the Pioneers’ defense, Hainje buried 21 points, yet couldn’t top Corning, who put up 29 and so far has led the Maroons offensively in every appearance this season.

“Matt was very good offensively this weekend and all year,” McGrath said. “He is strong and athletic and is shooting the ball very well, which makes him a tough matchup for opposing teams.”

Maintaining their first-half lead over the Pioneers, the Maroons showed that lack of defensive focus in the final stretch is not a consistent problem, and can be corrected. But if Chicago wants to return to the Dance, its young offense needs to find a way to put up points against any defenders.

“The main difference in the two games in terms of the score is that DePauw is a very good team and a difficult matchup for us,” McGrath said. “They had better size than Transylvania and made scoring much more difficult.”

With several non-conference opponents still on the plate before kicking off UAA action at Wash U on January 12, the Maroons have multiple chances to warm up before facing a perennially tough conference schedule. Their season continues Wednesday as the South Siders travel to Wheaton to take on the rival Thunder (3–0).