Going into Saturday’s showdown at Wash U, the stakes were clear for men’s basketball: Get a win and the Maroons will be outright league champions for the first time in six years with a good chance at playing host in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Facing its archrival in a crowded, hostile environment, the South Siders came up just short but displayed a resiliency under pressure that bodes well when the Big Dance begins Friday. Displaying a poise that was conspicuously absent in the teams’ previous meeting at Ratner, the 11th-ranked Maroons (20–5, 11–3) battled back from a double-digit second half deficit but couldn’t complete the comeback, falling 79–75 Saturday at 12th-ranked Wash U (20–4, 11–3).
The loss cost Chicago an outright UAA title and means that they will begin their drive to the Final Four with a first-round matchup against eighth-ranked Hope (23–4) Friday in Aurora, rather than starting out in the cozy confines of Ratner.
From the opening moments of Saturday’s game, it looked as if things might be different this time around. On the Maroons’ first field goal attempt of the day, fourth-year forward Jason Vismantas drilled a wide-open three point attempt. The next time down the court, he drained another, with fourth-year point guard Drew Adams and third-year forward Nate Hainje soon getting in on the long-distance action as well.
By the time fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead swished the second of his two free throws with 16:48 left in the half, the Maroons had built up a seven-point lead and had succeeded, at least for the moment, in quieting the raucous crowd at WU Field House.
Just as quickly as the lead had developed, though, the game switched gears into a hectic, back-and-forth affair. Hainje hit a baby hook from 10 feet, but third-year forward Troy Ruths responded with a thunderous turnaround dunk on Vismantas that brought the student section to its feet. Woodhead answered with a jumper off the dribble to build the lead back up to six. It was a pace that Chicago has shown the ability to maintain for much of the season, but this time the Bears refused to go away.
With the game on the verge of turning into a shootout, Chicago went ice-cold from the field over the next eight minutes, and some costly turnovers helped the Bears rattle off a 13–0 run and build a 28–20 lead which they never relinquished. Showing a calmness that was lacking in the teams’ first meeting at Ratner, though, the Maroons weathered the onslaught without burning timeouts or making major changes. Seven quick points from Hainje on two free throws, a trey, and a layup helped bring the Maroons to within one, and the teams went to the locker room for intermission in a dead heat at 37–36.
“You try and rely on your preparation, and you try to rely on seniors and composure, and I’m kind of a believer a lot of times that the timeout gives the other team a lot of energy,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “I didn’t really have anything specifically that I wanted to tell them in the timeout that I wanted them to do differently. I just wanted them to play through it and learn from that, and I think they did that very well.”
While the Maroons displayed their mettle in rallying before the half, Wash U’s trio of Ruths, second-year forward Tyler Nading, and second-year point guard Sean Wallis proved too much for the squad to handle in the second half. Methodically working the ball inside to the towering Ruths and fourth-year forward Nick Nikitas, Wallis navigated around the stingy Maroons defense to build up the Bears lead. Complicating things even further for Chicago was the all-court play of Nading, who was able to capitalize on frequent transition opportunities. Eight straight points from Nading—six on free throws—gave the home side its largest lead of that game up to that point at 65–53 with 10:37 left to play.
“If you look at the bulk of Tyler’s points, they weren’t really things out of their halfcourt offense as much as transition and steals, I felt,” McGrath said. “I thought they had a couple of steals and drives and a couple of outlets against our defense, and I felt we needed to be a little bit better in terms of taking away those things in transition and in handling the ball offensively. But to be honest with you a lot of those were them making really good plays.”
Just as in the first half, though, the Maroons battled back in the closing minutes, coming within a few defensive stops of the win. While frequent foul trouble helped prevent the squad from mounting too stiff a challenge for much of the half, Chicago still came alive down the stretch. A pull-up three from Woodhead made it a two possession game with 3:12 left, and a little more than a minute later, Hainje cut the deficit to four with a jumper. But each time the South Siders got too close, the Bears had an answer: The Maroon got to within four three times in the final minutes but could never quite pull it off.
In a losing effort, Hainje demonstrated his versatility once again with 20 points on an array of jumpers, hooks, and layups, to go with nine rebounds and four assists. Vismantas and Woodhead added 13 points apiece, and Adams chipped in with 11. Fourth-year guard Jesse Meyer, who needed two three pointers to set the new school record, finished 0-for-8 from the floor and 0-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Setting a new school record and more than compensating for an 0-for-7 performance from the floor, Wallis led the way for the Bears with 16 assists to just two turnovers. Nading led all scorers with 24 points while Ruths added 19 points along with nine boards.
Any lingering feelings from the tough loss will have to disappear quickly for the Maroons, as they get set for their first NCAA tournament game Friday. The Flying Dutchmen of Hope have only two losses on the year and will be gunning for a rematch with bitter rival Calvin (18–9) in the second round, making them a tough opponent for any team. Calvin takes on the 14th-ranked host Aurora (25–2) in Friday’s second game, with the winners to play Saturday afternoon.
“We’re excited to be in the tournament; we knew we’d have to play a good team, and those are the two ways I feel now. I’m glad we’re in it, and we have to play a very good team in Hope,” McGrath said. “Is it a good draw, is it a bad draw? I’m not sure there is such a thing in the NCAA tournament. You’re gonna play the top teams in the country, and from that standpoint we just need to prepare and be ready to play on Friday.”