March 1, 2011

Maroons win at Wash U, complete series sweep

An energetic St. Louis crowd, feisty aggressiveness from the Wash U players, and questionable refereeing were not enough to stop men’s basketball from winning their last game of the season, as the Maroons put up a stellar performance to defeat the archrival Wash U Bears on Saturday 74-67. The win sealed a third place tie for Chicago (7-7 UAA, 10-15) in the UAA with the Bears (7-7 UAA, 13-12). More important, the win gives the Maroons well-needed momentum going into next season.

With both Chicago and Wash U out of UAA contention, the purpose of the game was strictly pride and momentum. While the Maroons held a shaky 2-9 record on the road this season prior to Saturday’s game, they realized what tactics were needed to mirror the result of the UAA opener against Wash U in January, where Chicago barely bested the Bears 79-77.

“The key, I feel, with Wash U is to contain their swagger. They like to run around, get steals, throw alley oops, and crash the offensive glass. They’re going to get some of that stuff, but you need to be able to limit it to isolated events. Don’t let a dunk turn into a steal and sloppy play on your end,” third-year guard Tommy Sotos said.

Early on, the Maroons contained Wash U in the way Sotos had expected, allowing just four fast break points and four points off turnovers in the first half. Chicago did not take control of the game relying solely on defense--third-year guards Michael Sustarsic and Matt Johnson put up stellar shooting performances, combining for 21 points behind the arc in the first half.

While the offensive prowess and defensive awareness seemed spot-on for the Maroons, Wash U did not let the game out of reach. Trailing Chicago by 11 points with 6:25 remaining in the first half, the Bears composed themselves and created opportunities in the paint. Their efforts, however, were not enough to cause any lead changes in the first 20 minutes of action, as the Maroons led 31—27 at halftime. But Chicago was not pleased with the momentum Wash U gained late in the half. The coaching staff reaffirmed the importance of beating Chicago’s key rival.

“There weren’t any big changes or speeches [at halftime], just a reminder that there aren’t a whole lot of things more satisfying than beating your arch rival on their floor,” Sotos said.

The players brought their revamped mind-sets into the second half. Pushing and shoving by the Bears made it extremely difficult for the Maroons to create opportunities inside the paint, so they relied on the same offensive strategy as the first half: make shots behind the arc. The strategy worked, as Sotos, Sustarsic, and third-year forward Steve Stefanou hit big three-point attempts in the first 10 minutes of the half.

The game turned physical in the second half. With 7:01 remaining in the game, Wash U senior forward Spencer Gay responded angrily to a foul called on Bears’ freshman guard Tim Cooney. He approached third-year forward Tom Williams, stared him in the eye, bumped into his shoulders, clearly ready to fight. However, Williams held his ground and did not let the situation escalate, and gave a fierce stare right back. The referees, in an effort to control the game, gave Gay and surprisingly, Williams technical fouls.

“Gay came up on me after a physical play between [Johnson] and [Cooney], and I held my ground more than anything,” Williams said. “I didn’t realize I got a technical till I was in our huddle after the play.”

The Maroons did not want Gay’s antics to get into their heads.

“That kind of emotion can set them off on a run if you let it get in your head,” Sotos said. “You need to be able to make shots and get stops when stuff gets testy, it’s really that simple.”

However, Sotos words were easier said than done. For about 1:30 after the incident, the Bears controlled the game, cutting the Maroon lead to five. But Chicago was able to forget about the incident shortly after as they regained control. A three-pointer by Johnson sealed the deal for the Maroons with 3:40 left in the game, as they upset Wash U with a final score of 74—67.

The win brought optimism for the players going into next season.

“This was a great way to end the season. We needed these last two wins to let everyone know the kind of team we can be. Our squad is dripping in talent. But it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t show up to play every game. These last two games we showed up. Hopefully we can look back on them as jumping off points into a great season next year,” Sotos said.