January 12, 2010

Men's basketball's upset bid falls short in St. Louis

It would have been the perfect setting for men’s basketball to break out of a four-game funk: on the home court of rival Wash U, the defending national champion and the first opponent of the Maroons’ conference schedule.

But perfection is hard to come by, and on Saturday Chicago just barely missed it: A three-pointer from fourth-year forward John Kinsella went in and out in the waning moments, halting the Maroons’ attempt to force overtime and sending Wash U (11–1, 1–0 UAA) to a 64–60 win. The loss is the fifth in a row for Chicago (6–6, 0–1), which began the season 6–1 but has now fallen to .500.

“It’s disappointing. I think there was a win there that could have been gotten,” head coach Mike McGrath said. “It would have been a great start to the conference. Particularly at the returning national champions’ gym, that would have put us a big game up on everybody else in the league.”

The Bears’ win stings that much more because Chicago actually led for the bulk of the game. With 11:15 gone in the first half, a pair of made free throws from second-year guard Michael Sustarsic put the Maroons up 22–15—which would prove to be their largest lead of the game.

Chicago was in the lead, 30–28, at the break, and held a series of small leads through the opening minutes of the second half. It wasn’t until there were 15 minutes remaining, when guard Aaron Thompson sunk a three, that Wash U finally got a lead it could hold.

Thompson’s shot gave his team a one-point edge, 39–38, but the Bears’ advantage would swell over the next few possessions, as forward Caleb Knepper poured in three consecutive three-pointers of his own to put Wash U ahead 50–41.

“Those four three-pointers in five possessions really determined the game,” McGrath said.

At the 15:36 mark, just before Knepper and Thompson got going from deep, fourth-year guard Jake Pancratz went to the bench because of foul trouble. Pancratz was in and out of the game with fouls for most of the second half. Though he got four assists in the game despite his limited appearances, the Maroons’ play was hobbled in his absence.

Still, Chicago slowed Thompson and fellow guard Sean Wallis enough to get the Bears’ lead down to one, 52–51, with 9:20 left, and within reach of Wash U for the remainder of the game.

Less than a minute was left on the clock when a triple from Kinsella brought the Bears’ lead down to 63–60, and the Maroons got possession back with chance to knock down a three and force overtime. The ball ended up in Kinsella’s hands again, and he fired, but the shot rattled out. A free throw in the final seconds sealed Wash U’s 64–60 win.

Even early in the game, while Chicago was ahead, Wash U stayed close on the Maroons’ heels, thanks largely to the work of its leading scorers, Thompson and Wallis. Chicago did well to unsettle the Bears’ shooters—Wash U didn’t get a field goal from its bench, and only four players made more than one basket—but there was no stopping the individual efforts of Thompson and Wallis.

“[Wash U] did not get a lot of baskets within their offense, especially a lot of easy baskets,” McGrath said. “I thought we defended very, very well. It became, for a lot more possessions than normal, them having to play one-on-one with Thompson and Wallis.”

And while the Bears don’t usually rely on two stars to carry the team, when Thompson and Wallis go 7–15 and 9–15 from the field, as they did Saturday, it works well enough. Between them, the duo accounted for well over half the Bear’s total points; Thompson had 17, and Wallis notched 24.

The Maroons will be back at Ratner this Friday, playing against NYU (9–2, 1–0) on the fifth-annual Beach Night. The Violets beat Brandeis (8–2, 0–1) in their UAA opener, and are in the midst of a six-game win streak.