February 6, 2012

Conference opponents stifle offense, prevent upsets

Chicago (11–9, 4–5) failed to provide an encore performance this past weekend against UAA rivals Emory (16–4, 5–4) and Rochester (13–7, 4–5). Facing increased defensive attention, fourth-year guard Matt Johnson, who had scored a total of 85 points against the two teams a week ago, only managed 17 on the road against them last weekend.

The Maroons began their road trip traveling to Atlanta to take on the Eagles, who were seeking revenge a week after Johnson stunned them on a last second three-pointer, securing a 103–102 Chicago victory. Johnson’s heroics earned him UAA Athlete of the Week honors and left Emory yearning for payback.

Chicago started the game flat, however, and the Eagles sprinted ahead to a 14–2 lead, never looking back. Riding point guard Austin Claunch and forward Jake Davis, who join Johnson as the top three per-game scorers in the UAA, Emory continued to pile on the points against the Maroons, who were unable to adjust to the Eagles’ defensive tenacity.

“I thought they had a higher energy level,” Mike McGrath, the Maroons’ head coach. “I thought they were much more active defensively and they made a couple of technical adjustments, but overall I thought they just had a lot more energy defensively.”

At the end of the half, Emory enjoyed a 47–26 lead thanks to a 14–0 first half turnover differential. One of the culprits for Chicago’s sluggish start was an increased focus on Johnson, which contributed heavily to the turnover disparity. Once Chicago’s star guard was locked down, no other consistent option emerged, save for first-year guard Royce Muskeyvally, who was 7–9 from the floor and finished with 16 points on the night.

“I felt that as they attacked Matt, we didn’t do a good job of spacing the floor and making ourselves available to him when he had people coming at him,” McGrath said. “I thought we did a much better job of that in the second half.”

Chicago rebounded after halftime, but the effort was not enough to overcome the overpowering first-half surge of the Eagles. The Maroons ultimately found themselves on the wrong side of an 83–67 defeat.

“It was disappointing, but they’re a very good team,” McGrath said. “They came out with a lot of energy. It was a tough night for us.”

Chicago then flew to Rochester for Sunday’s rematch against the Yellowjackets. The teams kept the contest close throughout the first half, until there was 2:35 left. At that point, Rochester exploded on a 13–0 heading into halftime.

The Maroons responded out of the break, outscoring the Yellowjackets 29–15 in the first 15:25 of the second half, reducing Rochester’s lead to one. Chicago’s comeback fell short, however, as Rochester was able to halt the Maroons’ last minute charge.

“We just didn’t get to the line as much as they did,” McGrath said. “We outrebounded them, we took more shots than them, we made more shots than them, we made more threes, and they beat us at the free throw line.”

Johnson turned in a second unimpressive performance, hitting on only one of his seven three point attempts, and finishing with a meager five points on the night. Fourth-year guard Michael Sustarcic helped to pick up some of the slack.

“Michael’s a really good shooter,” McGrath said. “He’s been in a bit of a funk lately, and he, Tom, Sam, and Royce are going to get some looks when people key in on Matt, and if those guys knock them down the way they’re capable of, then we’re going to be pretty hard to beat.”

The Maroons return to Ratner on Friday to face Carnegie at 8 p.m. and follow it up with a game against Case Western on Sunday at 12 p.m.