March 6, 2008

Men’s hoops riding momentum

Men’s basketball head coach Mike McGrath has been here before.

Saturday’s 74–66 victory over Wash U (19–6, 10–4 UAA) won the Maroons (18–7, 11–3) their best regular season record since 2001 and their fourth NCAA D-III tournament spot in the last nine seasons. For McGrath, however, the bid was not as certain as the numbers might suggest.

“We were one loss from not making it,” McGrath said. “It’s a very subtle thing. There are good teams that don’t make the tournament and good teams that do, and a fine line separates those two.”

The Maroons find themselves on the right side of the line for the second time in as many years and will start their trip in St. Paul, MN, with a match-up against ninth-ranked UW–Stevens Point (22–6).

“I’m excited to have this opportunity; the guys are all excited,” McGrath said.

With the excitement of the postseason, however, inevitably comes the end of the season. The Maroons will be following the same script throughout the tournament: win or go home.

“It’s a cliché, but we’re just going to take it one game at a time,” McGrath said. “The saddest part of it is the team won’t be together any more [if we lose], and we’re going to postpone that as long as we can.”

The South Siders will be looking to forget their 76–54 loss to Hope in last year’s opening round.

“Anytime your year ends, it’s disappointing,” McGrath said. “The thing is that a lot of good teams get knocked out in the first round, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

With the wave of momentum that the Maroons have built, however, Chicago is confident that its trip will last beyond Friday night.

“Our offense has handled the ball very well; we’re not turning it over much,” McGrath said, “and our defense has gotten much better as the year’s gone on.”

Meanwhile, fourth-year forward Nate Hainje has found the perfect time to turn up his game, averaging 23.9 points and 9.9 rebounds in the Maroons’ final seven games. His performance earned him UAA Player of the Year honors.

“He’s one of the best basketball players I’ve ever coached,” McGrath said. “He deserves a lot of credit for elevating his play these last few weeks. As our other threats become more potent, I think Nate’s game evolves.”

Hainje and the Maroons will certainly be looking to continue raising the bar and to repeat the balance their offense showed in Saturday’s win over Wash U. After the team’s slow start against the Bears, four players scored in double figures, with Hainje leading the charge with 19 points.

One of the crucial elements for Chicago lately has been third-year forward Adam Machones. In the UAA Championship game, he scored 18 points on 4-for-4 shooting beyond the arc.

“He’s a very good basketball player,” McGrath said. “He has come into his own over the last several weeks.”

The Maroons’ momentum will be put to the test Friday against Stevens Point’s players, who have won 8 of their last 10 games and the DIII National Championship in 2005.

“They have one of the better basketball programs in Division III,” McGrath said. “They’re very versatile; they’re very hardnosed inside.”

Fourth-year guard Steve Hicklin and third-year forward Pete Rortvedt lead the Pointers averaging 12.5 and 12.4 points per game, respectively. At 6-foot-5, Rortvedt could pose a similar threat that Brandeis’s 6-foot-4 second-year forward Terrell Hollins presented when he dominated the paint for 18 points before fouling out in the Maroons’ 74–66 victory on February 26.

McGrath, however, is confident in the abilities of fourth-year center Tim Reynolds and third-year center Tom Watson, who have matched up against the post threats of Wash U’s fourth-year forward Troy Ruths and Brandeis’s Hollins.

“I think we’ve got guys that defend the ball well,” McGrath said. “We’re not afraid of any post player any more than we would be of a perimeter player.”

Following a closely contested UAA season, in which the Maroons had to overcome sixth-ranked Brandeis and seventh-ranked Wash U in a week’s time, McGrath pointed to many of the same qualities that the Maroons have recently displayed as keys to success in the tournament.

“We’ve got to play really, really hard, and play together. We have to have a lot of energy, play with composure,” McGrath said. “There are times when… they’re going to try to exploit you. We have to be in a position where we can overcome that.”