After a stellar showing in the first half of conference play, men’s basketball had solidified its reputation as one of the best shooting teams in DIII, consistently held off bigger and stronger opponents, and weathered more than their fair share of injury trouble. Most of that damage, though, had been done in the cozy confines of Ratner, and the question remained as to whether the Maroons could maintain their high level of play on the road.
With this weekend’s performance, 19th-ranked Chicago (16–4, 7–2) may have provided the answer. The men put together a more than respectable split on the East Coast swing, beating back a furious comeback attempt at Brandeis 74–69 (14–6, 4–5) Friday and rising from the dead to come a missed trey away from overtime in a 79–76 loss to 25th-ranked NYU (16–4, 5–4) Sunday. Fourth-year shooting guard Brandon Woodhead came through with 34 points on the trip to lead the team.
The quirks of scheduling had the Maroons at Ratner for five of their first seven in the conference, letting them build up their record at home in a league where every team is more than capable of defending their own building. With a 7–1 overall road mark including 2–0 against the league, Chicago was thoroughly convinced they had the seasoning they needed.
“Time and time again this year, we’ve focused on winning individual possessions rather than the whole game. We take the same approach at home. We’ve got hard-working kids and good basketball players. That’s what it takes to win,” head coach Mike McGrath said.
The team’s approach paid off from the tip in Waltham on Friday, as Woodhead sandwiched a three-pointer from fourth-year guard Jesse Meyer (12 points, four boards) between two layups to set the tone for the first half. Chicago’s scoring leader went on to score 12 of his team-leading 16 before the break, and with fourth-year forward Jason Vismantas scoring eight and grabbing a pair of rebounds, the Maroons held a 43–37 halftime lead.
That margin would be as high as 11 points in the second half, but a rare spate of turnovers allowed Brandeis to bust out a 10–0 run and tie the game at 57 all with 6:14 left. Third-year forward Steve DeLuca stroked a trey to put the hosts up 60–59 1:05 later.
McGrath called a rare timeout to settle his team down, and the Maroons responded. With Brandeis pressing, Chicago went to the free throw line 14 times in the last five minutes and made 11 shots from the charity stripe to put the game away.
“We’re a good shooting team; and an experienced team, we’ve got a lot of composure,” McGrath said. “You miss some, but there’s not a guy on this team I don’t expect to make every free throw every time.”
The Friday night decision was the seventh straight win for the Maroons, but they didn’t have quite enough for eight. Chicago was held to a 32.1 mark from the floor in the first 20 minutes against NYU. The Maroons hit six three-pointers but got only six points in the paint against 16 from their opponents. Their defensive performance was also not up to their usual standards. Fourth-year guard Michael DeCorso was on fire on the perimeter, nailing five from beyond the arc for 15 points in the first half. A dunk from fourth-year center Jason Boone (game-high 22 points, 11 boards) with 1:46 to go before the break punctuated the half and gave the Violets a 40–29 lead.
“We had a lot of good looks that didn’t go, and we missed a few layups. But we were two baskets away from being down five or six at halftime, and if you do that you’re not nervous at all,” McGrath said. “We were saying in the locker room, ‘let’s go out there and get those same kinds of shots.’”
They followed through on that plan, and with some improvements on their own end, slowly chipped away at a 15-point deficit. An and-one in the paint from third-year forward Nate Hainje (team-leading 19 points) narrowed the gap to just 61–58 with 5:40 to go, and the game was an intense back-and-forth brawl from there until the buzzer. Hainje nailed a three-pointer to put the score at 74–71 with 36 seconds left, and then responded to Boone’s one-for-two showing at the charity stripe with a layup to bring the Maroons within two with 18 seconds to go.
A Woodhead trey took his team within inches of Comeback City at 77–76 with nine on the clock. But third-year guard Charlie Parker built the lead back up to three with two from the line two seconds later, and a stab at the buzzer-beater from Woodhead rimmed out to end the game.
“NYU is really, really good. I was bitterly disappointed that we lost, but I was very proud of the physical effort we put forth,” McGrath said.
That effort was most notable in the post position. With third-year starting center Tim Reynolds and second-year big Tom Watson out for the foreseeable future, Vismantas and third-year forward Matt Corning will share the bulk of the minutes in the frontcourt with Hainje. The trio did a remarkable job controlling the dynamic duo of Boone and fourth-year forward Daniel Falcon.
“I think guys have stepped up and taken on the challenge of filling their roles to the best of their ability,” Vismantas said. “[Corning] has done everything we’ve asked of him and more.”
A two-loss weekend from seventh-ranked Wash U (16–3, 7–2) means that the Maroons will go into next weekend still tied with their archrivals for the top spot in the UAA.
The South Siders take on Case (4–16, 0–9) at Ratner on Friday before wrapping up their home schedule versus Emory (8–11, 2–7) Sunday afternoon. The latter game will be Senior Day for such luminaries as Meyer, Woodhead, Vismantas, and guards Drew Adams and Derek Brannon.